Argentina 2001/2002: Aconcagua, J.S. Milne

In December 2000/January 2001, I spent three days acclimatizing in the Vallecitos area, and then eleven days attempting Aconcagua (6962m, 22,841ft). Three days were too few to climb a major peak in the Vallecitos. I approached Aconcagua via the Vacas valley to its east, and spent three days at the foot of the Polish glacier at 5900m waiting for the winds to drop so that I could climb the difficult Polish direct route, but they only grew worse. Eventually, on the last available day, I attempted Aconcagua by the standard route, but was turned back by violent winds just above the Cresta del Viento (windy crest) at about 6600m, and descended back to the road via the Horcones valley to the west. It was a great trip, but it was disappointing not to get up any mountains.

This year, I planned to spend six days in the Vallecitos area and twelve days attempting Aconcagua. Moreover, I would approach Aconcagua via the Horcones valley, and climb the standard route before considering the difficult Polish direct route.


14.12.01 Arrived in Mendoza

I was met at the airport by Abraham from last year, who took me to buy some gas and get my permit for Aconcagua. He then drove me to Vallecitos, and I walked into a campsite at 3450m/11310ft.

15.12.01 Acclimatization walk

Walked to about 4150m/13600ft on Pico Franke.

16.12.01 Climbed Pico Franke c4900m/16100ft

Franke is an ideal acclimatization peak --- it is a mixture of scree, easy scrambling, and the occasional piece of trail. The Argentine map gives its altitude as 5100m, but all the heights on the map are exaggerated, and my estimate (from my altimeter) is that it is no more than 4900m. The climb of c1450m/c4800ft took 5 hours (290m/hr).

The highest point of Pico Franke. By 11:15, the clouds were already beginning to boil upward.

After reaching the highest point, I noticed that there was a cross on different "summit" block.

The "summit" block on Pico Franke. Reaching the top of it was an easy scramble (easier than it looks!)

17.12.01 Moved camp to 4300m/14100ft

18.12.01 Acclimatization walk

Walked up the valley to 4800m.

19.12.01 Climbed Co. Plata c6000m/19700ft

Plata is the highest peak in the Vallecitos. According to the Argentine map, it is 6300m, but an English language guidebook lists it as only 5800m. A guide at the campsite said it is 6000m.

View towards Plata from near the campsite. The visible peak is "Pico Plata", which is about 200m lower than Co. Plata behind it. The route climbs the snowy basin, and then follows the easy slope on the right to the summit. The final slopes have been largely swept free of snow by the wind.

In the morning, the wind was sufficiently strong to turn back five Argentine climbers, but it was not nearly as powerful as the winds had been the year before on Aconcagua. Once I crossed the ridge, the wind dropped somewhat. When I stopped for lunch, I seemed to be higher than a neighbouring peak, Vallecitos, which the map lists as 5700m, and only about 200m below the summit. Since my GPS gave the altitude as 5600m, I expected the guidebook would be correct. However, as usual, the summit was further than it looked, and my GPS, placed a couple of metres below the summit, locked on rapidly to 6 satellites, and gave a reading of 5976m/19607ft. Close to 6000m! [I don't know how accurate the altitudes given by GPSs are. The geometry suggests they should be much less accurate than the horizontal readings, so Plata may in fact be 6000m.]

The summit of Plata. The clouds were flying past in the wind just above me, but it was fairly calm on top.

Left 5:30; top 12:00; 1680m; (260m/hr).

20.12.01. Descended to camp at 3450m

I made a half-hearted attempt on Rincon, but by 10am the snow was softening, and I was feeling lazy, so I returned to my camp, packed up, and moved to the grassy spot at 3450m where I'd camped on the way up.

21.12.01. To road, and to Aconcagua National Park

I walked down to the road at 10am, where my car met me and took me to Los Puquios, Rudy Parra's mule camp. After sorting my gear, I set off in the afternoon and walked up the Horcones valley as far as Confluencia 3374m/11070ft (2 1/2 hours).

22.12.01. Walked to Plaza de Mulas 4280m/14050ft

Walked up the Horcones valley to the base camp for Aconcagua (6 1/2 hours).

The mules carrying 20kg of my food and gear passed me on the way to base camp

At the base camp, I met two Canadians who had spent five days sitting at the 5900m camp at the foot of the Polish direct route. They said it was all hard ice. No one had climbed it except for two Koreans who had bivouac (spend the night) on the route. One Korean reached the summit; the other retreated. Both had frostbite to the hands, feet, and face.

That just about eliminated any thought I still had of doing the Polish direct route after the standard route.

I planned to go to Nido de Condores (condors' nest) 5380m tomorrow and attempt the summit the following day. The Canadians' plans were the same, except they intended to go the Berlin camp 5780m.

Aconcagua from Horcones Peak (taken after the snowstorm of 23.12.01). Plaza de Mulas (base camp) is at lower right; Nido de Condores is the flat area at centre-left; the route above Nido roughly follows the ridge at left but cuts across below the black summit block to reach the ridge just to the right of it.

23.12.01. To Nido Condores 5380m/17650ft.

Walked up with a heavy pack in 4 1/2 hours (245m/hr).

Rocks and clouds, from my tent at Nido.

At Nido de Condores, I met a friendly Chilean party. They were moving up to Camp Berlin and planned to attempt the summit tomorrow.

About 3pm a snow storm blew in, and it continued to snow and blow most of the night.

A nearby tent after the storm.

My tent was in a slightly sheltered spot, which was bad, because in addition to the wind I was almost buried by drifting snow.

My tent after the storm --- when I camped, there had been no snow nearby.

24.12.01. Rest/acclimatization

Because of the bad night, and the new snow, I decided to wait a day for my summit attempt.

I walked up to the Berlin camp (5870m/19260ft). Despite the storm, the Canadians attempted the summit --- one turned back at 6400m with cold hands and the other reached the summit.

The Chileans at the Berlin camp had decided to wait a day also. They will leave tomorrow for the summit at 5am. A large Norwegian party will leave for the summit from Nido de Condores at 2am. I will leave from Nido at 5am. [Because the weather generally deteriorates after midday, even on good days, everyone tries to reach the summit by midday.]

25.12.01. Summit bid

It was windy and cold when I left at 5am. In many places the trail was covered in frozen snow. At about 6200m, I was passed by a climber wearing a yellow windsuit (without a pack) who was climbing very rapidly --- he was cutting the zigzags [he must have slowed later, because when he reached the summit I was only about 100m below.]

From time to time, a single climber or a pair of climbers would pass me going down. Were conditions impossibly bad (like last year) above the Cresta del Viento? I asked one of the descending climbers --- No, he was only descending to accompany his sick companion; conditions were good higher up.

I reached Independencia 6400m/21000ft at 8:30am --- 1020m in 3 1/2 hour --- almost 300m/hr. By now, the sun was beginning to warm me, and things were looking really good.

I crossed the Cresta del Viento, and this year the wind dropped somewhat. Above me, there were about 15 climbers, all of whom had left before me or had started from higher camps (except for the man in the yellow suit).

The route became icy, and I put on lightweight trekking crampons (I was wearing winter hiking boots --- virtually everyone else was wearing plastic double climbing boots and alpine crampons).

For the last 300m to the summit ridge, the route was buried in deep powder snow. I began to pass other climbers. I admired their tenacity: many had started three hours before me, and, because they were going much slower than me, they must have been feeling much worse than me, but, nevertheless, they continued to force their way up. The soft snow, the altitude, and fatigue were affecting everyone.

Looking back at the route, only about 50m below the summit. Two climbers inch their way up.

The friendly Chileans arrived on top shortly before me, and one took a photo of me.

On the summit of Aconcagua 6962m/22842ft

Arrived at 12:30 (7 1/2 hours for 1580m/5200ft; 210m/hr).

The Chileans beginning their descent

After the Chileans left, two Italians arrived, and thrust a video camera into my hands (the first time I'd touched one). As I "pressed the red button" and pointed it at them, they re-enacted their arrival on the summit, pulled out a very faded pennant, and made an emotional speech about how, in the long history of their royal and ancient climbing club, this was the first time the pennant had been carried to the summit of the Americas (or something like that, my Italian being nonexistent).

By 4:20, I was back at my tent.

26.12.01. Return to base camp

27.12.01. Walk

The Germans seemed to spend their time at base camp washing clothes while the French cooked elaborate meals.

28.12.01. Horcones Peak 5395m/17700ft

View from my tent at base camp (Plaza de Mulas). Horcones Peak is the distant snow peak behind the "Aconcagua Express".

Climbed Horcones Peak. It was a very pleasant climb, with beautiful views, and no real difficulty except that one has to be careful not to fall down any of the monster crevasses.

View down the Horcones from on Horcones Pk. The distant snow peak at top-right is Tupungato 6570m (which I plan to attempt next year).

At this point, I still had a few days left, and no desire at all to go back up to 5900m to see if the Polish direct route was in as difficult a condition as the Canadians claimed. Instead, I decided to take a look at the south face of Aconcagua. This is one the most famous mountain faces in the world. Its first ascent by the French in 1954 was a major event in mountaineering history (I probably read the book of the expedition at the time it first appeared).

29.12.01. Camp in the Horcones

Sent some of gear out by mule, and ambled down the Horcones for 3 hours to a pleasant lonely campsite.

30.12.01. Walked to the French base camp 4200m

Walked to Confluencia in the early morning.

In the morning the Horcones is a frozen trickle; by late afternoon, with the melting snow, it is a raging torrent.

Walked to the French base camp in the afternoon. Met some friendly Brazilians there. They were a party of six: 2 climbers had been on the wall for 6 days; the rest were a film crew of 2, a base-camp manager, and a "sherpa".

31.12.01. Rested.

The valley leading into the French base camp is very dry; only the different shades of brown and grey in the rock relieve the tedium.

01.01.02. Walk.

Walked across the glacier below the face to the other side of the valley, being careful to keep far enough from the face to avoid being wiped out by one of the many avalanches. There was quite a bit of debris on the glacier, which had been swept off the face, including twisted fragments of a light plane and a bone fragment (presumably human).

The south face of Aconcagua is 3000 vertical metres of rotten rock and unstable ice cliffs.

02.01.02. Mendoza

As I left (at 10am), the two Brazilians on the face were only 20m from the top.

Walked to the road, and my driver arrived at 4:30. By 7pm, I was in Mendoza.

I asked my driver whether anything important had happened while I was in the mountains. No, he said. It was only later that I learned that while I had been the mountains, 27 people had been killed in riots in Buenos Aires, there had been five presidents, and the Argentine economy had finally imploded.


Everything you need to know for climbing Aconcagua can be found in
Secor, R.J., Aconcagua, A climbing guide.

There is a brief description of the Vallecitos area in
Biggar, John, The High Andes, A guide for climbers.

Rudy Parra can arrange everything (transport from the Mendoza airport, mules, hotels,...)

For equipment purchase and rental (including butane/propane) in Mendoza, contact Casa Orviz