Having successfully completed a number of high altitude peaks over 5,000 metres, Aconcagua has always been my ultimate trekking goal. So when the opportunity to attempt the highest ‘trek-able’ summit outside of the Himalaya presented itself, I snapped it up.
Comprising nine males and three females aged 30-65, my group had a number of 5,000m plus peaks under its collective belt – prerequisite experience for this type of expedition, as are good fitness and stamina levels.
For five months prior to departure, I increased the gym sessions to five a week focusing on cardiovascular exercise, increasing lung capacity and building up additional reserves of muscle and body fat. I also reduced the weekly Malbec intake to just two glasses a week one month before the trip.
However, no amount of training can really prepare you for an ascent of this nature in terms of altitude gain. The key to 6,962-metre success is slow, steady acclimatisation, hence the gradual two-week ascent from Aconcagua National Park prior to the summit attempt.
Aconcagua’s trekking season runs from December to March but the weather above 5,000 metres is always subject to rapid change with little notice at any time of year. It is not uncommon for summit attempts to be delayed or even thwarted altogether if conditions prove too dangerous. Remember – summiting is optional but getting down is mandatory!
Another key component of a successful high altitude expedition is having the correct kit and the list for this trip is a fairly comprehensive one comprising plastic boots, crampons, an ice axe, duvet jacket and a four-season sleeping bag as temperatures can plummet to a bone-chilling -25 degrees.
Climbing slowly from the valley floor, the scale of what we were attempting hit home as the surrounding peaks towered above us, the threatening clouds teasing us with only fleeting glimpses of the summit.
Under no illusion as to what to expect, we checked into our 4,500-metre high base camp in a blizzard, the summit looming ominously above us.
This camp, with its eclectic mix of semi-permanent tents, showers, WCs, mules and trekkers, was to be home for the coming days as we acclimatised. Although resembling Moon Base Alpha, the camp’s high altitude dining and the group’s bullish banter proved to be the perfect foundation for maintaining morale and relieving boredom.
By night, shrouded in deathly silence with no contact to the outside world, I marvelled at the clarity of the Andean skies mesmerised by the shooting star illuminations. However, summit’s eve was quite a different matter.
Finally, after another eight days of stunning acclimatisation hikes and pushing our bodies and our kit ever higher, we reached White rocks Camp and settled in for some rest prior to our summit bid.
Lying in my two-man tent at 5,900 metres in the middle of a swirling blizzard with howling winds battering the flimsy canvas, sleep evaded me as I nervously pondered what the next 24 hours would hold. Eventually my physical exhaustion took hold and I drifted off into the arms of Morpheus.
Stepping foot on the summit of South America’s highest peak at 15:45pm on 21st February 2011 was simply euphoric – quite literally the most intense high of my life. The 360-degree vista over the Andes takes some beating, despite the windswept conditions and semi cloud cover shrouding the peak.
Given the capricious nature of Cerro Aconcagua’s metrological conditions, to be standing on top of the Americas at 6,952 metres was an enormously fortunate and satisfying, yet humbling experience.
The average summit success for this season was only 25%, so it was a credit to our excellent support team, experienced guides, well-planned itinerary and a bit of luck with the weather that six of us made it to the top. Despite being pushed to the limits both mentally and physically, it seems we defied the odds.
This unique trekking experience in a classic Andean alpine region is not to be missed – once achieved, it will live with you forever.
By Exodus’ Alistair Grice – Sales Consultant