Aconcagua Peak at 6,961m/22,838ft, is both the highest mountain in Americas and the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia. Close to the Argentine-Chilean border and located approximately 113 km/70 miles northwest of the Mendoza region, Aconcagua ranks second in terms of topography in terms of longest wall extension after Everest at 8,848 m/29,013 ft. The origin of Aconcagua’s name is disputed, but some believe it comes from the native Quechua language, ackon cahuak, meaning ‘rock sentry’, or the Aymara word janq’u q’ awa, ‘white gorge’.
Along traditional routes, the climbing of Aconcagua Peak is seen as relatively safe among peaks of this altitude, free of ice crevasse hazards and technical rope pitches, and lacking the common challenges one usually encounters on other peaks of similar altitude. Despite an altitude of nearly 7,000m/23,000ft, Aconcagua is virtually snow-free for most of the year, and in recent years this has been extended due to climate change.
History Aconcagua mountain
Aconcagua was first attempted in 1883 by German geologist, Paul Güssfeldt, who made two attempts along the northwest ridge of the peak (now the trad route) to an altitude of 6,492 m/21,300 ft. In 1897, the first recorded ascent of the peak was made by a team led by British mountaineer Edward Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was an experienced climber with a wealth of experience in New Zealand’s rugged Southern Alps, but he himself failed to reach the summit – despite making six attempts – and one of his team’s Swiss guides, Matthias Zurbriggen, reached the top alone on 14 January (in the southern hemisphere summer). Two other expedition members reached the summit during an attempt a month later.
At that time, Aconcagua was the highest mountain in the world to have been climbed. Anyway, William Woodman Graham’s claim in 1883 that he had successfully climbed Kabru, a 7,349m/24,111ft peak in the Himalayas (if true), would have won him the prize, although Graham’s statement is usually regarded as a lie.
On 4 March 1934, a team of six Poles made the first climb of the east face of Aconcagua, now known as the Polish Glacier Route. Until now, all the climbs on the peak occurred on the traditional route of the north-east ridge, and between 11 and 15 September 1954 three Argentine climbers completed the first winter climb of Aconcagua along the traditional route.
The summit of Aconcagua is also the site of an important Inca-era archaeological dig dating back 500 years, when the dried body of a seven-year-old child – a victim of human sacrifice from the Capacocha community – was revealed in 1985 in a semi-circular rock structure with a large number of grave goods at an altitude of 5,304 m / 17,400 ft above sea level on the summit. The burial site of this approximately 500-year-old body is one of the highest archaeological areas in the world.
As a result, Aconcagua is often considered to be the highest “trekking mountain” in the world. Although there are no technical climbing areas (along traditional routes), Aconcagua’s altitude, geographical location – on the far south side of the equator, close to the ocean – and being one of the “seven highest peaks on the seven continents” means that it is an extremely popular mountain, especially for novice climbers.
Every year, around 3,500 climbers come here to give it a go. Even though the technical difficulty here is low, it is relatively safe and congested, which combined with the large number of inexperienced climbers gathered may result in more deaths on Aconcagua than on other major peaks in South America. The peak also faces a serious problem with human excrement.
Today, the relative safety and accessibility of Aconcagua Peak has made it the site of numerous altitude records and climbing attempts. The world’s highest museum of modern art, Nautilus, is located in a tent at Plaza de Mulas Base Camp, 4,298m/14,100ft above Aconcagua, and showcases the work of post-impressionist Argentine painter, Miguel Doura. Among other records, Czech Republic super-runner Martin Zhor set the fastest known record/FKT from Plaza de Mulas base camp to the summit, finishing his climb in just 3 hours and 38 minutes in December 2019.
There are two main routes on Aconcagua Peak, the traditional route and the Polish Glacier route. The traditional route is the easier and more popular of the two. Climbing the north-west summit of the mountain from the Río Horcones valley – the traditional route is a relatively straightforward walk without technical areas or objective risks due to altitude and weather. The Polish glacier route is much more difficult, with 50 to 70 degrees of snow cover, steep ice slopes, the requirement to use ropes and to place protection.
In addition to the traditional routes, most groups opt for the Polish Traverse, which combines the Polish Glacier area with the traditional route, which is also seen as a false Polish route, or a 360° route, which offers slightly more replacement sections than the traditional route, without the technical areas of the Polish Glacier, and is the second most popular route on the peak. Although there are no permanent snow-covered areas on the Polish Traverse or the traditional routes, there are sometimes ice and/or hard snow here, so depending on conditions one might want to carry ice claws and ice axes.
Most climbers will attempt this between November and March, with the peak season being December and January. Regardless of the route chosen, Aconcagua is a high altitude mountain where accidents and fatalities occur every year, most often from physical exhaustion, high altitude illness, or a combination of both. It may be the easiest mountain at this altitude, but it should never be underestimated. Many consider Aconcagua Peak to be the perfect start to a high altitude mountaineering expedition, giving a first glimpse of what it is like to attempt an 8,000 metre mountain in the Himalayas or the Karakoram range.
Facts and figures
– Altitude: 6,961m/22,838ft
– Mountains: Andes
– Province: Mendoza
– Date of first climb: 14 January 1897
– First climber: Matthias Zurbriggen
– Number of attempts per year: 3,000 to 4,000
– Average success rate: 30%
– Average death rate: 0.3%
– Average cost: US$7,500 (RMB 54,775)