Mt. Aconcagua
Mt. Aconcagua, Argentina, at 6,962 metres (22,841 ft), is the highest peak in South America. Just 38 metres below 7,000 m, it is the highest point on Earth outside of Asia. It's located about 30 km from the Chilean border, close to Santiago.

My expedition to Aconcagua begins in Mendoza (Argentina), a crowded city of a million people. I was alone and had to solve many problems that are usually shared among the members of an expedition. First of all, I needed to buy a permit for the climb. Secondly, I went shopping for all my food for the expedition. It took the entire day to finish my preparations. Then I packed my backpack at 11:30 pm. and went to a restaurant on the street to eat something for the first time that day.

At 6 a.m. next morning I was on the bus heading for Puente del Inca, a small village near the entrance to Aconcagua Provincial Park.

A trail to the base camp starts from the park ranger's tent six km from the village. All climbers must register there. Cost of the permit is about $300 US and they are really serious about it.

Mt. Aconcagua is seen immediately from the beginning of the trail. However it is a long trip to base camp - 36 km. The trail goes along the chocolate-color Horcones river, which is the main source of drinking water in the valley. By late afternoon I reached the Confluencia camp, which was nice and comfortable, and had clean water.

Next morning I left the Confluencia camp. There were not many things to look at except low mountains and a dusty valley with some spots of desert flora. Most of the time I wasn't looking at the landscape. When you're carrying a heavy load, you're not enjoying the views. Usually you're looking one meter ahead at the trail in front of you.

Mt. Aconcagua, ArgentinaHalfway along the trail...

Halfway along the trail, all flora disappeared and the landscape became more and more like that of the planet Mars; all red dust and loose rocks. A couple of times I was passed by a caravan of fast-moving mules, loaded for the base camp. No way to keep up with their pace.

Exhausted after nine hours of hiking with a heavy backpack, I finally approached the base camp “Plaza de Mulas”, 4,260 metres above sea level. I pitched my tent and tried to fall asleep. Can’t say I slept well.

In the high season the area is covered with many big and small tents. I got my water from a greenish-brown-colored creek nearby. Paradoxically, the Internet was available in the base camp, but it was expensive - $15US for ten minutes. I was a person who spent the money. I sent a short e-mail message to my wife on her birthday.

The next day I sorted my food and prepared for an acclimatization ascent. To climb such a high mountain you need to spend some time in the base camp making these acclimatization climbs and carrying your supplies to the higher camps, before making the actual climb. The oxygen level at a 7,000-metre summit such as Mt. Aconcagua is only 40 per cent of that at sea level. During the acclimatization climb, the body is preparing for the lack of oxygen; the red blood cells are increasing in number. It usually takes two weeks to get acclimatized before reaching a 7,000-metre summit.

The next day I left the base camp carrying equipment, food, water, and fuel to Camp Canada, my first interim camp on the way to the summit. A typical slope grade was about 30 degrees. I left my load in a cache and returned to the base camp.

There are many routes up Mt. Aconcagua. The two most popular are the so-called ‘Normal’ route and the ‘Polish direct’. I didn’t want to climb either of them. I chose the rarely-climbed Directa route, which goes straight up from Canada camp directly to the summit.

Next day I climbed back up to Canada camp and continued up the Directa route. My destination was an area above a belt of rocks, where I planned to establish my second camp. The climb began over some very loose rocks, followed by more solid ones. It was not very technical or difficult, but still dangerous because of the loose rocks. Now I was very high on the mountain and I could see the base camp very far below. Finally I climbed to where I wanted to establish my camp. I was extremely disappointed at what I found there, or rather, at what I didn’t find. There was no sign of snow, water or ice anywhere. The white spots I believed would be snow were just spots of salt. It was the end of a very dry and hot summer season on the mountain and all the snow was gone. I needed four to five liters of water per day. There was no way I could carry water for multi-day climb. So I had to abandon the route I really liked and climb the Normal route instead. Frustrated, I descended to the base camp, looking closely at the bright white spots on the mountain. None of them were snow, all salt.

Next day I packed my backpack for the summit ascent. I still wasn’t acclimatized well as I had spent only three days above 4,000 metres. But I decided to go. I knew how I feel at high altitude and what to expect. Aconcagua wasn’t the highest mountain I had climbed. I boiled water for breakfast and filled a thermos for tea. I packed my backpack with food, clothes, fuel, and the other things I needed for the climb. By the time I had packed the tent, the weather had turned for the worse. I started my climb but half-way to Camp Canada the weather became really bad, and since it made no sense to wait several days for better weather at a higher camp, and then have to descend to base camp for more food and fuel for the summit push, I decided to return once again to base camp. I decided that if the weather improved the next day, I would climb past Camp Canada and on to the next one, in order not to lose a day.

In the morning a layer of snow covered my tent. I made my preparations and began to climb. After two hours the weather became sunny; almost ideal. There was 2-3 cm layer of fresh snow on the ground, and I new that it would be melted on the sun very soon. I reached Camp Canada, packed all my food and fuel from the cache into my backpack, which became very heavy, and continued on to camp “Nido de Cóndores” at 5,350 m. I did not sleep well that night, as I was still not acclimatized. Early the next morning a helicopter evacuated a climber who had broken his leg the day before. My backpack was ready to be carried to the high camp and in several hours I reached the place. It was White Rocks camp, at 5,900 m. There were actually many white rocks there and many different locations for camp. I pitched my tent, collected some snow and boiled water to drink.

I got up at 3:30 a.m., and at 5 a.m. began my final ascent. It was very cold and windy; normal for high altitude. At 6 a.m. the sky lightened and I saw strange mushroom-shaped clouds on the mountain. I didn’t like it at all. There were no other climbers around, but when I reached the Independencia hut, to my surprise I met a guide with two clients. They were camping somewhere above me. The guide said: “I just had a radio connection with base camp. A storm is coming. We are going down."

“Well, what exactly did they say about the storm?” I asked.

“Extremely strong wind and mushroom clouds,” he replied.

I didn’t like those clouds, but it’s very difficult to frighten me with a strong wind in the mountains. The weather is not perfect in the mountains all the time. However, the visibility was good enough. I decided to go. “I am going up,” I said.

I still had about five hours to get to the top.

Climbing solo, I don’t have the chance to talk too much. Of course, I spoke to people at the campsites, but that conversation with the guide was one of the longest I had during the whole climb.

Independencia hut at 6,400 m is reported to be the highest alpine refuge in the world. It is about 2.5 by 1.5 m in size. The roof is broken and doesn’t provide protection anymore. I left my backpack, which was 3.5 kg. I took only a thermos, first aid kit, and a flashlight with me. I hung the thermos on my shoulder with a piece of rope, then put on my down parka and Gortex jacket, mask, goggles, extra mittens and headed up to the summit. I was lucky - I was alone on the mountain, which is usually very crowded.

Independencia hutI reached the summit of Mt. Aconcagua

Closer to the summit I stopped at the “penitentes”, a unique type of glacier that one can see only in the area close to the Equator. It consists of needle-shaped ice, formed as a result of almost vertical sun rays.

At 2 p.m. I reached the summit of Mt. Aconcagua at 6,962 m. I was all alone. I took several self-portraits and spent a total of about twenty minutes. A cross marks the top of South America.

Now I had to go all the way down to the base camp. Most accidents in the mountains happen on the descents. Tiredness, high altitude, and decreased attention all play a role. I had to force myself to pay attention. In three hours, very tired, I reached my lone tent at the White Rocks camp. All the other groups had turned back. The wind was really blowing like a hurricane. I wasn’t able to sleep - I tried to hold the tent down with my body weight the entire night. Sometimes I felt certain that the wind would destroy it, but my old tent passed the test. Only two bracing lines were broken.

Next morning I was back to “Nido de Cóndores” camp. Someone’s upturned tent was flapping in the wind, but the weather was getting better.

I took one more look up at the summit. Clouds covered it.

I continued the descent and finally saw the base camp again. It was half empty. Many expeditions had gone. It was the end of the season.

I set up my tent. The night was very dark; there was no moon, but the stars were bright and beautiful. I couldn’t recognize any constellations as it was the Southern Hemisphere, and very different from what I was used to seeing in the Northern Hemisphere. I had to get up very early in the morning to cover the 36 km back to the entrance of the park, plus another six km to the bus stop on the highway at Puente del Inca. I gave all my food to people in the camp, but my backpack still weighed about 30 kg. I left base camp before sunrise. Somebody told me that the last bus to Mendoza departed at 3:30 p.m. Some hours later I reached the green grass but I lost time struggling with my hiking boots, which didn’t survive that trip. At 3:20 p.m. I got to the end of the trail, hoping that I would find a ride for the last six km of the road. The park rangers told me that the last bus had already left an hour ago, but I was lucky. A nice Argentinean family gave me a ride directly to Mendoza and in the evening I was back to civilization.

It took me nine days from Mendoza to climb to the top of Aconcagua, and a total of 12 days to get from Mendoza and back. That was pretty much what I had planned: ten days for the ascent, and three extra days for a bad weather. I spent those days in the city waiting for my flight home. The average duration of the Aconcagua climb in a commercial expedition is 14 days from Mendoza to the summit, with 19 days for the whole expedition. My faster climb didn’t mean that it was done with little respect for the elevation or for the weather. Of course, Mt. Aconcagua wasn’t the highest mountain I’ve ever climbed, and not a technical one. But I live in Vancouver at sea level, and climbing in nine days to 7,000 metres was not physically easy for me. That’s why I enjoyed the climb even more.

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All comments: 1
Vasyukov Sergey: Ravil, send me your email address. My address is
Ravil, send me your email address. My address is
2012-07-13 00:07:49    

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Dr. Ravil Chamgoulov is an elite world-class high-altitude climber who was awarded the rare and prestigious Soviet Union designation of ‘Snow Leopard’.
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