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.

1864_Johnson's_World_Mountains_and_Rivers_Map_or_Chart_-_Geographicus_-_MtsRvrs-johnson-1864

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.

weather

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.

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