Climbing the Seven Summits shot to the top of my bucket list a few years ago after reaching the top of Kilimanjaro and I became hooked on mountain climbing. After completing Africa’s Kilimanjaro and Europe’s Elbrus, the next mountain on my list was South America’s Aconcagua. Located just outside of Argentina’s famous Malbec wine region in Mendoza, this giant in the Andes reaches up to 22,837’ making it nearly 3,500 feet taller than my previous highest peak. Following two frustrating years of scheduling to climb Aconcagua and then the trip getting postponed due to the pandemic, I was considering if the famous 7 was still a goal worth pursuing. Finally in the fall of 2022, the climbing company let me know they would be operating the expedition in December, reinforcing a key life lesson that I’ve had to be reminded of few times:
Lesson #1- If the goal is worth it, the time to accomplish it doesn’t matter
There are several routes up to the highest peak in the Americas that typically last around 21 days, but due to limited time off work I selected going on the fastest option which is a12 day route (ten on the mountain plus a before and after day in Mendoza). To reduce the climbing time that significantly requires doing altitude training from home ahead of the expedition to minimize the total days necessary for acclimating on the mountain. I did a 6 week training program at home that combined sleeping in an altitude tent and doing workouts with the training mask which you can read more about here.
After weeks of prepping gear and breaking in new equipment, it was another disappointing and frustrating moment when I finally landed in Mendoza and learned that my bag had not. After weeks of picking the right gear and breaking in new equipment, the airline lost my bag and I had to rent or borrow everything possible upon arrival. The other three members of the expedition let me use the extra gear they could spare and I rented or purchased enough to get by which still cost about $1,500 just to get the bare essentials required to make the climb.
At the beginning I was still hopeful that my bag would arrive in time so that I could pay for someone on a following trip to add my bag to their mules who could bring it out to base camp (about an extra $500), but alas Delta couldn’t find the bag and it took ten days for them to locate and deliver it. I was reminded daily of this inconvenience every time I put on the men’s XXL jacket or pants I was using or when the cheap thermos I had bought leaked inside my bag, but I tried to focus my energy and effort on the daunting task of climbing the mountain rather than becoming overwhelmed and discouraged. This led to my second key lesson from the expedition:
Lesson #2 - Don’t allow small frustrations to become big problems
Many things are simply outside of what we can control but that doesn't mean we can't push through and still accomplish our goals. So I packed up my limited assortment of gear and headed out towards the mountains.
The ten day fast-track itinerary:
Day 1- after a big breakfast in Mendoza, we loaded all the gear into the bus and headed out of the city. Around noon we arrived at the park entrance and started the light hike to out to Confluencia (3,400m/11,150ft high), about 9 km. The initial trail is rather easy and we maintained a slow pace out to the first camp. I was pleasantly surprised by Confluencia which had far more amenities than I expected including a huge dining lodge, toilets, and even bunk beds in the sleeping tents.
On the mountain, there were three key physical check-ups that we had to complete before being approved to continue on the aggressive timeline. The first check was at Confluencia where the doctor took our blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen levels to confirm we were all recovering quickly at the lower altitude camp. After getting the thumbs up from the doctor, we headed to bed early to be fully rested for the long hike the following morning.
Day 2- We were up before sunrise to prep bags and eat a full breakfast before we started hiking at 7am. This was the longest distance of the expedition in a single day covering about 13 miles but it was a very slow and gradual climb up to Base Camp- the Plaza de Mulas (4,300m/14,100ft). It was a relaxing trek with plenty of snack breaks incorporated that took us through the rugged valley yet it was still very exciting to crest the final ridge and see Base Camp sprawled out in front of us. We stepped into our new home for the next few days still fresh, clean, and eagerly awaiting the challenge of the next week.
After finding clear spaces and pitching our tents we were introduced to the fine dining on the mountain. The meals were truly impressive in both quality and quantity with each hearty dinner including a steaming bowl of soup, lots of meat and carbs, and always a delicious dessert afterwards. It is a good thing that mountain climbing burns so many calories or we would have been rolling off the mountain afterwards!
That night after dinner, we headed to the mountain doctors’ tent for our second check on the mountain. I was first in line from our expedition group to get all my vitals checked, giving little time for my heart rate to slow down after the 10 min walk there inside Base Camp. Usually a few minutes of walking barely impacts heart rate, but at altitude it is amazing how even the smallest amount of physical exertion can affect the body. Thankfully I was cleared again by the doctor who wrote down all the results in his meticulous log book. Admittedly throughout the climb, I was carefully monitoring my own heart rate and pulse ox with my Garmin watch to track my acclimatization process. (I got the Garmin Instinct Solar specifically for this purpose and was pleasantly surprised with how rapidly it re-charged each day from the sun).
All four in my group completed the medical check and unfortunately the results for one of our members was not what the doctors wanted to see so they had him take a extra rest day the following morning. We all headed back to our tents and turned in early. One of the huge benefits at Base Camp was the working toilets which were massively beneficial due to how much we were hydrating. Drinking a lot of water is important for adjusting to altitude and always necessary for physically demanding challenges like the trek so having clean bathroom facilities available certainly incentivized not skimping on water. I also did not expect to have a shower available at the camp, but it proved great for morale later in the climb being able to rinse off the sweat and grime. It is a very primitive facility but shockingly the water actually got hot which felt incredible on cold and tired muscles!
Day 3- The first night at Base Camp made me truly appreciate the sleeping bag that was rated to -40 F which I quickly realized would be essential for this trek. At this lower altitude it kept me warm and cozy which definitely helped the quality of sleep which is crucial for adequate recovery on a climb. We had a slow start to the day enjoying a massive breakfast and carefully dividing up gear for our first hike up to Camp 1 (4,950m/ 16,240ft). Leaving around noon, it took about 3.5 hours on our acclimatization hike to make our way up to the camp. This was our first ‘carry’ day where we lugged up about 24kg of gear and food with us to stage for the following days. We bundled everything into duffels and buried them under rocks to prevent it from being blown away before returning to base camp.
Trekking back down a mountain is always my least favorite part of climbing because the careful rate of ascension goes out the window and speed seems to become the priority. The loose gravel on Aconcagua made it especially important to find good footing on the way down to avoid tripping or spraining an ankle that could end the climb before it begins. I carefully skied down the rocks in my oversized hiking boots, trying to keep up with the group but prioritizing my safety to prevent an unnecessary fall. The return to base camp took less than 45min and then we were on our own time until another massive dinner was served up in the communal tent.
It was another calm night at the camp of chatting with the guides about the plan for the next few days and getting to know the other climbers on the expedition. Our fellow climber that had remained behind for the day to rest and recover was starting to feel better and ready to join us in the morning for our second carry day.
Day 4- In the morning we started our second hike back up to Camp 1 around 9am with light packs. We took a quick rest and snack break there before loading up our packs with most of the gear we had staged there the day prior. After dividing up the gear and food between most of the team members, we started our carry hike up to Camp 2 (5,500m/ 18,045ft). It took 7 hours total from Base Camp to Camp 2 but we were feeling good by the time we arrived. There was another, albeit much smaller, communal tent waiting here that is shared by several of the climbing companies that we were able to rest in away from the cold winds.
We broke out our packed lunches and dug in before doing a quick hike out to one of the small icy lakes nearby. We refilled several jugs and all our personal water bottles from the lake and treated the funky tasting water to carry back down to Camp 1 which does not have a water source. After dropping off the water, we repeated the same scramble down the mountain back to Base Camp which only took about 2 hours total.
That evening after dinner, the guides talked us through the different options they were considering for the next few days. They tried to balance a variety of factors including the weather forecast, the health of the group, and the best window for a summit attempt which was looking like it would be 26 December. The climb that day had not gone well for the sick member who returned for another medical check but his condition continued to worsen. The rest of the crew including myself had also started experiencing flu-like systems and were becoming increasingly concerned about how our health would hold up over the next week.
The debate about the plan for the upcoming days intensified within the group, but ultimately the guides made the call that we would use our rest day the following day rather than later in the climb so that everyone had the chance to rest and recover.
Day 5- At breakfast the team was met with the news that our fellow climber had been flown off the mountain in a medical evacuation for fear of a pulmonary embolism. I was feeling substantially sicker that day and the guide instructed me to stay in the camp and not do any extra hiking around. I spent the day relaxing mostly in the main lodge and drinking as much tea with honey as possible to sooth my sore throat. Later in the afternoon, I slowly made my way across the camp to visit the highest art gallery in the world- the Nautilus and met Miguel Doura its curator and artist. His brilliant colored paintings are a bold fauvist style that frequently feature the surrounding scenery on the mountain and it was fascinating to talk to him about his evolution in art over the years. The rest of the evening was spent back in the tent prepping gear for the early start on our first 'move' day.
Day 6- The morning had a late start as everyone finished packing up tents and dividing all remaining team gear between the group. There are porters available to carry gear between camps but the prices range a few hundred dollars for each move. Trying to save extra money on the mountain (not an insignificant amount) and figuring that carrying the extra weight would be good training for more difficult mountains in the future, myself and one of the others on the team opted to carry our own gear.
Finally we left Base Camp around 10am on our third and final trek up to Camp 1. We picked up all of the remaining gear and water that was still there, had a quick lunch, and then continued on to Camp 2. Because of the inbound weather, our guides decided against spending a night in Camp 1 and opted that we move directly to the second camp for the night. The entire climb took about 6.5 hours and the whole way up was a constant barrage of extremely cold winds. Each water break we took on the climb, I added more and more layers to stay warm and protected against the dropping temperatures.
At Camp 2, we set up tents and then hurried back to the small common tent where our guides prepared a pile of steaming ham, bacon, and pasta; encouraging us to eat as much as possible to restore our energy levels. Carefully reviewing the weather for the following days, our guides made the call that we would make our summit attempt in two days. Initially the plan had been that we would take a second rest day at Camp 2, but with a snowstorm heading our way the timeline was sped up so that now we would push up to Camp 3 in the morning. That night the temperatures continued to drop making it hard to get a good night of sleep, but we bundled up as much as possible and tucked in for the evening.
Day 7- After another slow morning start, we headed out for a second move day in a row up to Camp 3 (5,980m/19,620') with all of our gear. It took about 3.5 hours as we trudged up to the final camp under weight which was just over 26kg. It was another arduous climb as we were hit with more intermittent freezing winds throughout the hike.
Simply setting up the tents and walking around the camp was enough to get slightly winded so all movements were slow and deliberate. Neither Camps 2 or 3 have bathrooms so we each used trash bags to do our business and then carefully placed a rock over the bag for easy retrieval later on the climb back down. The rest of the afternoon was spent rehydrating and asking the guides about a million questions for the following day as they planned the summit attempt.
We had our third and final medical check conducted by our guide after reaching Camp 3. He only tested our oxygen levels which ranged in the group from mid-60s to low 80s. He wouldn't tell us what our levels were so that we wouldn't stress about them, but later I found out that mine was the highest of the group at 83% which still seems incredibly low. Oxygen levels vary per individual though and guides are there to provide expert opinions on who is ready to make a summit attempt. Another member of our now 3 person team was not doing well at the higher altitude and everyone was still battling against what we assumed was a cold or flu. Yet we were all cleared to make the climb in the morning! We each filled a bottle of water to keep tucked in our sleeping bags for the night to prevent them from freezing and I kept my fingers crossed that my faulty water bottle wouldn't leak all over me in the night.
Day 8- Summit morning started around 4am and we drug our freezing and aching bodies out of the tent. We had some cold cereal and filled our water bottles with lukewarm water before starting the climb in the -35F temperatures. About an hour into the climb, the other member who had been struggling the night before began to fall back. The guides split, leaving one with him to go at the slower pace before they ultimately made the call to head back down the mountain all the way to Base Camp. Myself, the other climber, and our guide continued up at a slow but steady pace.
Shortly before making it to the halfway point, the other climber started struggling as well and our pace dramatically slowed as we took frequent stops to rest. The anticipated snow had arrived and we immediately lost all of the beautiful views of the mountains and clouds below.
Hours later we made it to the caves which marks the final ascent point up the mountain. Here we dropped our packs and loaded snacks and a water bottle inside our parkas for the last push up the mountain. It took nearly two more hours to complete the push up but finally we crossed the last rocky hill and stepped into the clearing at the top. By this point the peak was fully enveloped by clouds so the views were less remarkable than I had hoped for, but I was incredibly grateful that we had made it! Weeks of training, brutal days of hiking, and a grueling climb that morning had led to this beautiful moment at the top of the Americas!
We didn't remain on the summit for long because we had a long trek back down the mountain. The other climber had lost nearly all muscle control by this point and the guide built a harness out of rope to carefully drag her down. On the return to the caves, we passed the only other group that had made the summit that day as well and we were all eager to make it back down safely. The weather worsened as we headed down and soon it was complete white out conditions, obscuring all landmarks that would help our guide navigate. Later he told us that this was his scariest moment in leading any expedition as there is a different route called the Polish Glacier nearby that has a cliff straight down. In similar conditions years before, a guide had mistakenly led his team off the top of the cliff leading to several deaths.
Blissfully unaware of this, we followed his lead down through the snow until he stopped to make a call back to camp that we were lost on the side of the mountain. This was the only point of the trek that was truly worrisome as the guide seemed genuinely concerned and the other climber could barely stand. Finally, in the distance he spotted rocks that he miraculously recognized and we headed back up towards the point. Eventually we made it back across the pass and started making our way towards the halfway point. The other group was equally struggling on the descent but we were unable to provide any help to the other climbers at this point.
As we descended, the guide pulled down the other climber on my team who was exhausted by this point and wanted to carry on at her own pace. Evening was encroaching and as the sun set it became increasingly important that we make it off the mountain so we both cajoled her to get up and keep going. What seemed like many hours later, we finally spotted Camp 3 and eventually made our way back. We were all exhausted after nearly 15 hours of hiking and inhaled a big meal before wearily climbing back into our tents.
Day 9- At breakfast, we were surrounded by other climbing teams who had decided against a summit attempt the day before or had just arrived to Camp 3. With the weather growing worse than the day before though, almost everyone ended up on the same trek back down the mountain. We went from Camp 3 back down to Base Camp with only a short stop at the medical evacuation site in Camp 2 for a check on the other climber. We continued down through the snow and were greeted back at Base Camp with huge plates filled with a steaming variety of meat and large glasses of wine. The night was spent in a small celebration of the feat we had accomplished and best of all, it included a hot shower!
Day 10- In the morning we had our final breakfast before packing up the tents for the last time. We headed off the mountain at the typical post-climb frenzied rate, leaving my feet covered in the first blisters of the trip but by the time we reached the vans waiting for us at the bottom it didn't matter. It was a quiet ride back into Mendoza as we rested in the comfortable seats of the warm van and enjoyed the final views of the mountains. That evening we made it back to the hotel where we decided to forego dinner so that we could take real showers and get a full night of rest in a real bed.
Overall this climb was incredibly difficult and filled with a lot of unexpected challenges. Tensions frequently ran high, the weather was predictably unpredictable, and everyone's poor health took a toll. But that made reaching the summit even more rewarding and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to make it to the top of another of the Seven Summits!