How to train for Aconcagua?

Aha! I wish I had the perfect answer to this question. I’ve been hiking for pretty much all my life, but this challenge is on a whole new level.

Speaking on level I have a BIG problem. Sea level that is. The altitude of my apartment must be 6 m at most, my office might be at +10m with a push. This really does not help for a bid to climb almost 7000 m. But I do have a plan.

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Where I currently live, in St Andrews, Scotland. Pic taken last week.

Climbing Aconcagua is facing two challenges at the same time. First it’s a long hike. 21 days on average, hiking pretty much every day, carrying between 10 to 15 kg on our back (that is if you can pack light!). Second, it’s extremely high. So I have to take these two aspects into account for my training.

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The normal route day by day. From Aconcagua Trek Expeditions.

Cardio is the answer to the first challenge. There are many ways to increase your cardio capacity, and I found that cycling and running works well for me. I cycle every day to work, and run typically three times per week. I am hoping to run my first marathon this year in preparation for Aconcagua. As recommended by my brother, I joined my local Crossfit Box. They’re called Functional Fitness St Andrews and they’re amazing! I have survived to 9 sessions so far and am looking forward to doing a lot more in the months to come.

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My new addiction! Crossfit.

The second challenge is a lot trickier to address. In Scotland where I live, the highest mountain is Ben Nevis, culminating at a mere 1345 m… I miss my Alpine peaks! So over the summer I am hoping to spend more weekend bagging some munros (hills higher than 1000 m) and to organise one or two weekends in the French Alps to test myself at much higher altitudes.

Hiking Ben Macdui about a month ago.

But there are cheap ways to simulate high altitude. I’ve been a pretty big fan of the Elevation mask over the past few years. I used it in the weeks before climbing Kilimanjaro, wearing it while hiking in the French Alps. It looks like you’re wearing a gas mask, but all it does is restricting how much air you breathe. Pretty efficient especially because I only have the valves stimulating 16 000 ft, go big or go home!

Training in the Alps was definitely easier.

Aconcagua: normal or Polish?

Finding the next challenge, the next mountain you want to climb is only a very small part of expedition planning. Once the “goal” has been agreed upon, the real work begins. With this kind of mountains you can’t really freestyle it and intuitively follow random paths that seem to be going up. First, you have to decide on the route. I’m always tempted not to take on the normal route but I also don’t want to bite more than I can chew.

The route matters enormously. It is like choosing a friend to go on an adventure. There’s the friend you know well,  who is quite predictable, and there’s that more mysterious, erratic friend that is picking your curiosity, and that you know will make the trip more exciting.

On Aconcagua, trips with local companies are offered along two main routes: the normal route, and the polish route, with small variations of both. Let’s take a look at their pros and cons.

 

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Normal route:

Also called the North West route, is typically done is 18-20 days. The normal route is composed of three to four camps in total: base camp (plaza de Mulas), plaza Canada, nido de Condores and Berlin/Colera.

The pros:

  • Medical services: staying at base camp has numerous advantages. And one that is significant is the presence of a doctor. At this kind of altitude, this is certainly something not to take lightly!
  • Rescue patrol: due to the popularity of the route, a rescue team is always available.
  • Not technical: the normal route is the most popular one due to the fact that the distance between the camps is manageable, and the routes does not require any technical abilities.
  • Porters, mules and helicopter: if your bag is too heavy you can easily find an array of services to help you along the way!

The cons:

  • Packed: it’s a popular route, therefore expect crowds and traffic jams along the way!
  • Wind: the high camps are known to be very exposed to wind storms
  • Approach: long and not particularly scenic (although opinions differ on that!)
  • Going up and down the same route

Take a tour along the normal route HERE

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Fake polish route:

The fake polish route is actually composed of three different itineraries: the direct polish glacier route, the polish traverse route (also called fake polish or 360), and the guanacos route. So far, the tour operators I have contacted did not propose the direct polish glacier route, which is quite technical and requires special guides. No matter the itinerary, the polish route rejoins the normal route for the last kilometre to the summit.

Pros:

  • Scenic: the polish route is known for its impressive landscape, especially on the way to the first camp.
  • Less crowded: because it is a little more technical, the polish route is rarely as congested as the normal route.
  • A loop: the ascent crosses the polish glacier, and the descent follows the normal route. This route is best to see two different sides of the mountain!
  • Easier start: the approach start at a lower altitude than the normal route, and the ascent is more gradual.

Cons:

  • More technical: this route is not recommended to those who have never walked in crampons or used ice axes. The fake polish route avoids the steepest portions, but some sections are steep (40-50 degres).
  • Less medical services: as the route is not as popular as the normal route, rescue services and medical assistance isn’t quite on the same level.
  • Difficulty: the distance between the camps is greater and steeper.
  • Rivers: it takes 5 river crossing to reach the first camp, which can be a great challenge after heavy rainfalls.

Take a tour along the polish traverse route HERE

The Sentinel of Stone

As we are progressing in the organisation of our expedition to Aconcagua, let’s take a look at some fun – and less fun – facts about our next challenge.

The origin of its name is contested. Aconca-Hue from the Mapuche language refers to the Aconcagua River. If we look at the Quechua language, Ackon Cahuak means Sentinel of Stone, or Anco Cahuak the White Sentinel. Quite romantic.

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First ascents

The first known attempt to climb Aconcagua was made in 1883 by German mountaineer Paul Gussfeldt. He managed to hired some local guides by telling them about a treasure at the top of the mountain. Way to go! He made it to 6560 m.

Many Europeans attempted to reach the summit in the late 19th century. The British Mountaineer Edward FitzGerald tried 8 times between 1896 and 1897 but eventually his main guide Matthias Zurbriggen made it to the top before everyone else, on January 14th 1897. The route they took is the normal route that most use today.

The east side of Aconcagua was conquered by a Polish expedition on March 9th 1934 following what is now known as the Polish glacier route. And cocorico the south face (known to be the most difficult one) was climbed by a French expedition in 1954.

Geography

Aconcagua is located in the Southern Hemisphere, in the Andes, in Argentina. It is just one degree of latitude further north than Cape Town.

Contrarily to what is usually thought Aconcagua is not a volcano. The mountain is covered by a few glaciers, the largest one being Ventisquero Horcones Inferior, a surging glacier! The Polish Glacier on the way to the summit was first crossed in 1934.

Weather

Aconcagua is constantly lashed by strong winds from the West. Many many videos show tents being blown away, crazy winds hitting the high camps https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crIz-KBGTYw . In the summer, the temperature at night at 5000 m high can be down to -20c (-0.4F). At the summit -30 is the norm. But that’s in good weather. The conditions can be a lot, lot tougher. Unexpected blizzards are not a rarity on the mountain.

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Altitude

At sea level, we breath about 20.9% of oxygen. At the top of Aconcagua this number will fall to 8.7%, which is a considerable difference. I have never been above 5895 m, the altitude of Kilimanjaro. Aconcagua is in a completely different category.

Natural Hazards

Beside the challenges caused by the weather or the altitude, Aconcagua often makes the news because of the accidents related to natural hazards. The first challenge hikers face are the rivers. A couple of rivers have to be crossed to reach Base Camp on the normal route, while a total of 5 rivers must be crossed for the Fake Polish/Direct Polish Route. Having crossed many many glacial rivers in Iceland with a heavy pack a few years ago, this is not something I particularly enjoy, but this time I won’t be on my own.

No matter the route, rockfalls and landslides are the biggest danger. This video is one of the examples frequently seen on the mountain: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owTaxmaoVR4

For those who decide to go up the technical Direct Polish Route, crevasses often cause their share of trouble…

Fast, Faster

The youngest climber was 9, oldest was 87 years old. While a typical trek up and down Aconcagua takes about 17-19 days, Kilian Jornet did everything in 12h49min. But two months later Karl Egloff broke the record with 11h52min.

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Statistics

The odds are against us. About +3000 attempt the summit every year between December and March. About 2/3 to ¾ of them fail, either from bad weather, exhaustion or altitude sickness… Aconcagua is not to be taken lightly and on average 3-4 people die every year on the mountain. As it is a non-technical mountain, many underestimate how dangerous the mountain can be.  It is said to have the highest death rate of any south American mountain.