Some people climb mountains for the BREATHTAKING views and some for the BRAGGING rights; PETER WATSON has a HIGHER purpose, though: he’s partway through bagging the SEVEN SUMMITS, and next on his list is the world’s LOFTIEST trekking peak — Aconcagua, Argentina
People don’t climb Aconcagua for its beauty. It’s no Matterhorn, that’s for sure. Mountaineers and writers will never wax lyrical about Aconcagua’s pyramidal symmetry, its Viennetta flutes, or needlepoint summit. It’s just not that sort of mountain. No, Aconcagua is a dark, foreboding, unwieldy mass of ancient volcanic rock. But what it lacks in beauty and elegance, it makes up for in notoriety — and the accolades on offer are legion.
At 6,962m, Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the Americas, the Western Hemisphere, the Southern Hemisphere and outside of Asia. As such, it’s frequently referred to as the ‘roof of the Americas’.
The climb doesn’t require mountaineering experience, so Aconcagua is also known as the highest trekking peak in the world. Technical climbing skills are not needed on its slopes. Instead, aerobic endurance, stamina, and overall fitness and strength are the prerequisites for summit success. An ascent of Aconcagua may not require an ice axe, ropework, or crampons, but it’s not a task to be taken lightly either.
THE SEVEN SUMMITS
Aconcagua is a member of the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each continent. It’s the second-highest of the seven after Asia’s Mount Everest. In their quest to conquer all seven, climbers travel from all over the world to attempt Aconcagua. Like me, they don’t come for the scenery but the glory. I climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania back in 2010 during a backpacking trip to East Africa.
I was 26 at the time and trekking Africa’s highest peak reinvigorated my love for the outdoors. I spent much of my youth camping and walking in Scotland, Wales, and beauty spots around England, either on family holidays or as part of the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. But as a young man, I lost interest in the outdoors and it wasn’t until that trip to Tanzania that I even considered multiday trekking as a pastime.
There, on the slopes of Africa’s highest peak, I was reminded of the power of nature: its vastness, resilience, and benevolence. I was hooked again and haven’t looked back since. I now work as a freelance travel writer and photographer and spend an inordinate amount of my time blissfully walking the trails of the world for a living. It’s utterly ridiculous.
It was also on Kili that I first got wind of the ‘Seven Summits’. It was a lightbulb moment when I overheard a fellow trekker talk of the highest point on every continent. When I returned to the UK, I promptly started reading up on the mountaineering challenge first achieved in 1985 by amateur climber Richard Bass and something immediately stirred within. Could I do this too?
AN IMPROBABLE DREAM
Like me, Richard Bass was an amateur mountaineer, but that’s where the similarities end. Bass was a Texas millionaire oilman who owned the odd ranch here and ski resort there. I own a tiny two-bedroom house in Yorkshire with a bench out front.
There is a commonly held belief that you can accomplish anything you want in life if you put your mind to it. Social media posts perkily quote The Alchemist and tell you that when you truly want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it — but I’m not buying it.
I don’t believe in fate or destiny and I don’t think that brute-force doggedness guarantees success. For example, climbing the Seven Summits will cost in excess of £70,000. I can learn the skills, attend mountaineering courses, work hard on my fitness, and I can be stubborn enough to try, try, and try again. But unless I win the lottery, I can’t imagine ever having the money to climb the Seven Summits. But I guess that’s the curse of improbable dreams: you know that you will likely never achieve them, but you cannot quell the thirst.
After a winter mountaineering course in Scotland, I climbed Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak, and then Kosciuszko in Australia. However, I subscribe to the ‘Reinhold Messner List’ and therefore don’t include Kosciuszko in the Seven Summits. Instead, Puncak Jaya in Indonesia, the highest mountain on the wider Australasian continent (Oceania), represents that corner of the world. Anyway, I digress. In January 2020, I found myself on the slopes of Aconcagua because it was the next step towards realising my Seven Summits dream, however improbable.
There are several routes up Aconcagua, but the vast majority of climbers take either the Normal Route also known as the Horcones Valley, or the Vacas Valley Route more commonly known as the Polish Glacier Route. I climbed via the Normal Route, so my trek began at the Horcones Ranger Station at the entrance of Parque Provincial Aconcagua, some three hours and 100 miles west of Mendoza.
We were 12 climbers in total, hailing from Argentina, Canada, France, Norway, India, Israel, Latvia, the UK, and Uruguay. Everyone had their reasons for being there: some, like me, were aiming to complete The Seven Summits. For the Argentines, it was more about topping out on their country’s highest peak — like Ben Nevis for us Brits but over five times as high! I was tenting with an Israeli ex-soldier, who remarkably had never been above 3,000m.
For the Uruguayan, this was his final crack at Aconcagua after two previous unsuccessful attempts. It was a sobering thought. There are no guarantees in mountaineering and none of us were confident of making the summit. The initial march in is arguably the most beautiful part of the expedition, as the trail winds its way through the only greenery of the climb. The first day was a short three-hour hike to Confluencia Camp located at around 3,400m with the south face of Aconcagua in sight.
The following day was our first acclimatisation hike. We walked to the rocky plateau of Plaza Francia at around 4,000m, where we found our most scenic view of Aconcagua. It was here I realised just how immense Aconcagua actually is. Even at this height, the summit ridge still towers nearly 3,000m above. As the group turned and headed back to Confluencia, there was an uneasy mood among us. Our first proper view of the mountain had buoyed us, but the scale of the task ahead had also just begun to sink in. En route back to Confluencia, we had our first taste of the infamous Aconcagua flurry. The wind around these parts is ferocious and the chill factor be extreme, lowering temperatures by as much as 15C.
The following day we moved up to base camp, known as Plaza de Mulas as it’s the final stop for the herds of mules that transport equipment and supplies for climbers. The hike is a long traipse up the Horcones Valley following the Horcones River with the Andean wind whipping up dust throughout. By mid-afternoon, the ground steepens dramatically before the sea of tents that is base camp (4,300m) finally comes into view. We were a weary bunch of trekkers who ambled into camp that day, welcomed by endless thermoses of hot tea and plates of sweet biscuits.
Despite its location amid the Principal Cordillera of the Andes – the great mountain system stretching over 5,500 miles from the southern tip of South America to the northernmost coast on the Caribbean — the landscape around Aconcagua is bleak. When compared to the verdant forests and glacial moraines of the Nepali Himalaya for example, there’s relatively little snow to be seen around Aconcagua and the mountain is largely girded by dry and dusty scree.
This was my first time at a base camp proper. I had trekked to Everest base camp in Nepal and K2 base camp in Pakistan, but for both of those treks, the camps were the endpoint. Once there, trekkers promptly turn around and march back to civilisation. But Plaza de Mulas was different. It would be my home for six nights in total and was regarded as a sanctuary by the hundreds of climbers, guides, cooks, and porters who make it their temporary home. There was a nervous energy around the camp with most residents thinking about the challenging days ahead.
We took a much-need rest day at base camp before our second acclimatisation hike of the expedition. The nearby Cerro Bonete, at just over 5,000m, takes around four hours to ascend and 2.5 hours to descend. The hike provided some of the best views of the climb. From the summit of Bonete (5,000m), it’s possible to see the mountains of the Chilean Andes to the west and Aconcagua to the east.
The following day was our first load carry up the mountain, which doubled as another acclimatisation hike. Above base camp, we would be responsible for transporting our own gear and supplies so we each carried around 15kg up to the site of Camp 1, also known as Camp Canadá.
We had our first experience of the morale-sapping switchbacks that slowly lead climbers up the mountain. The terrain is dusty and arid so it must be walked at a snail’s pace. After five hours of plodding, we were happy to cache our loads at Canadá and then careen back down to base camp in a third of the time to enjoy our final day of rest before moving up the mountain for real.
The second carry to Camp 1 was much like the first, except this time we were there to stay. Camp 1 sits behind a rocky outcrop just below 5,000m and boasts excellent views of the valley and glacier. Life above base camp is quieter, simpler, and more routine. Between climbs, our time revolved around eating, collecting ice for melting, and drinking said meltwater.
The next stop would be Camp 2 or Nido de Cóndores (Nest of the Condores) at around 5,560m. All our gear now had to be moved up in one carry of around 25kg. To call the day punishing would be an understatement. The wind was furiously strong, the slope steep and the gritty terrain utterly demoralising. A miserable and exhausted bunch of climbers traipsed into Camp 2 that afternoon. The only solace was that the following day would be a rest day — our final one of the expedition.
Our last carry was up to Camp 3, also known as Cólera Camp, at around 6,000m. Our packs were slightly lighter as we had stashed a lot of gear at Camp 2 that we wouldn’t need higher up. However, much of the weight had been replaced by the 7L of water we had to carry to Camp 3. Reports had come down that there wasn’t enough snow above, so we’d have to transport water for cooking our meals and drinking on summit day.
Much like the previous climb to Camp 2, this was a merciless affair. This was now higher than I’d ever been before, and the effects of altitude were really beginning to bite. Breathing was significantly harder, so more rests were required which made our progress even slower. After a cruel scramble over a shelf of rock jutting out below camp, we stumbled into our final campsite of the climb. The rest of the day was spent pitching our tents and trying to drink, eat, and sleep as much as we could before the final chapter of our climb.
Like most climbers, I have a love-hate relationship with summit days. There’s nothing like standing on top of a mountain. Likewise, there’s nothing like getting up at 3 am on the side of said mountain. The middle of the night at 6,000m is pretty much how one might expect: dark, windy, and bitterly cold.
The initial climb out of camp was steep but we made good time despite some miserable weather. There was a persistent thick fog enveloping us and the wind was relentlessly intense. By the time it got light, we’d made it to an old, ruined hut known as Independencia at around 6,400m, where we paused for hot tea. Here, we lost our first two climbers from the team. Struggling with altitude sickness, they decided to return to Camp 3. Now we were 10. At this stage, I was still feeling strong and was confident I could make the summit. However, the weather was beginning to sap the joy from the experience.
Next up was the Cresta del Viento traverse, an exposed steady climb around the mountain leading to the infamous Canaleta. The Canaleta is an exasperating passage of slippery scree. The loose terrain essentially means that for every two steps forward you slide back one. It’s 400m high and takes several soul-destroying hours to ascend.
The final chance to rest comes at La Cueva (The Cave), a semi-sheltered cliff where climbers stop briefly before tackling the final clamber to the summit. By now, our team had diminished to just seven — another three members had been forced to turn back due to exhaustion. I was determined not to be the sixth. Unfortunately, my Uruguayan teammate had also turned back and sadly, once again, wouldn’t be gaining the summit. At least, he had made it higher than his previous attempts.
SUMMIT IN SIGHT
A mass of large boulders is the final obstacle to overcome just below the summit. Here, I was able to draw on some final reserves of energy and clamber onto the summit plateau. I’d heard tales from other climbers that the views from up here were stunning, but unfortunately, I will have to take their word for it; it was a whiteout.
I lumbered over to the simple aluminium crucifix that marks the apex of the Americas and spluttered a sigh of relief before collapsing nearby to drink some tea. My Israeli tentmate, who’d never climbed above 3,000m, was the first to make the summit.
If I’m brutally honest, I didn’t care about the view — or lack thereof. For sure, it would have made the summit a more enjoyable experience and it would have certainly improved the photographs, but Aconcagua was always a means to an end for me. I was standing upon the highest point in South America, my third mountain of the Seven Summits, and I’d achieved what I‘d set out to.
Celebrations were short-lived. It was savagely cold up there and it was time to get down. Summit shots snapped, we began our descent, returning the way we’d come. Four hours later, we shuffled back into Camp 3 and dived into our tents. Forty-eight hours after that we were back in Mendoza after charging down to base camp and then marching out the same route we’d entered two weeks
Back in Mendoza, my exploits felt like a dream. Unlike every mountain I’d previously climbed, Aconcagua was never about the love of hiking or climbing. It was the next hurdle to overcome towards realising my ultimate ambition of climbing the Seven Summits. Life on its slopes had been rough and at times even distressing — I wouldn’t wish those soul-destroying hours of the Canaleta on my worst enemy. It had proved to be the hardest ascent of my life.
Aconcagua had been on my bucket list for nearly a decade and had taken months of planning, preparation and training, but was now, finally, over. Three down, four to go. Next step, Denali…
Peter Watson is a photographer, writer, and founder of outdoor travel blog Atlas & Boots (www.atlasandboots.com). A keen trekker and climber he can usually be found on the trails of the Greater Ranges. He’s visited over 80 countries and is currently focused on climbing the seven summits – the highest mountain on every continent. So far, he’s scaled Kilimanjaro in Africa, Elbrus in Europe, Kosciuszko in Oceania and most recently Aconcagua in South America. When not overseas he lives with his partner in the Yorkshire Dales.