Climbing Aconcagua: A long walk to the roof of the Western world

Do you need inner strength or technical prowess to climb the highest mountain in the Americas? Neither, says Simon Calder

A fortnight ago, how did your day begin? Better than this, I hope. The alarm went off at 4.30am, pointlessly; we three had barely slept all night. The wind had howled, the tent had flapped, the cold had infiltrated every fold of fabric and flesh. And at 4.31am Graham - who was uncomfortably sandwiched in the narrow tent between me and his girlfriend, Gina - announced: "Almost every day of your life is going to be better than this one."

Thanks, pal.

Our location: Camp Colera, as in the Spanish term for a well-known gastric disease. The contender for world’s worst campsite occupies a shelf of rock jutting out from the fierce bulk of Aconcagua – the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. The summit of Argentina, and the Andes, and the Americas, stands at 22,840ft. While Everest towers a good mile higher, Aconcagua is easily the tallest peak outside the Himalayas. Even our squalid camp, comprising tents interspersed with ad-hoc toilet facilities so conducive to the spread of cholera, stood at around 19,300ft – the summit of Kilimanjaro. And there was the small matter of climbing a height equivalent to Ben Nevis and returning to the choleric comfort of the camp before nightfall.

“At this point I get really nervous,” said Graham, as ice crystals fell from the canvas. “The slightest mistake, and all the planning is wasted.”

A word, if I may, about Graham Hoyland. When I first met him 35 years ago, I thought we got on quite well, but I now recognise that he must have taken an instant dislike to me and has been secretly concocting a punishment ever since. Over the past three decades he has climbed Everest and many lesser peaks, become a mountaineering film-maker, and organised the search that found the body of George Mallory – who disappeared, along with Sandy Irvine, on an attempt on Everest in 1924. The mystery of what happened to the pioneering climbers is the subject of Graham’s most recent book, Last Hours on Everest.

While he achieved great heights literally and metaphorically, I stayed at home and nursed an exaggerated fear of heights. But we remained in touch, and last year Graham issued the kind of ­invitation that arrives only once in a lifetime.

“Gina and I are going to climb Aconcagua in January. Would you like to come too?”

“Will I fall off?”

“No.”

Graham explained that Aconcagua is the highest walk in the world, with no head for heights needed – just an aptitude for altitude. Unaccountably, he failed to mention that the exercise would involve living in a tent for three weeks on a series of desolate plateaux and a diet of reconstituted cardboard. I secretly relished the prospect of walking to the sort of heights where planes normally cruise. And thus I found myself plunged into the utterly alien world of high-altitude antics.

If yachting equates to standing under a shower tearing up £10 notes, then serious mountaineering resembles walking upstairs 1,000 times while ripping up £20 notes. To reduce the risk of frostbite nibbling your toes, you need double-plastic boots – just as uncomfortable, and twice as expensive, as you might imagine. I rented them. For £100. Each. Still, as I stepped from the plane into a sunny afternoon in the pretty Argentinian city of Mendoza, it was difficult even for me not to feel excited and optimistic. I would have had a spring in my step were it not for the fact that I had been wearing double-plastic boots all the way from London in order to save on baggage charges. Yet the maddening footwear seemed to have bought – or at least rented – some credibility. At the transit lounge at Buenos Aires, a fellow passenger had hailed me with a single word: “Aconcagua!” He was Brazilian and was flying to the Andes to tick the mountain off his list of the Seven Summits.

Straight on, then left at base camp: Try virtual mountain exploration with Google Map's latest operation

Mountaineers seem to like numbers and targets. Scotland has its Munros, i.e. peaks over 3,000ft, to be bagged. Colorado climbers collect “Fourteeners,” the 14,000ft-plus summits in the Rocky Mountain state. And the world’s elite climbers compete to top-out on all 14 of the 8,000m Himalayan highlights.

The Seven Summits is the global goal: climbing the highest mountain in each of the seven continents. But does Elbrus (18,510ft), in the Russian Caucasus, actually lie in Europe and therefore trump Mont Blanc (15,780ft)? And since Australia’s­ highest, Kosciuszko, is little more than a hillock at 7,310ft, should climbers aim for the twice-as-tall Carstensz Pyramid in Papua instead? At least there is no argument about Aconcagua, which is why a queue of people is waiting to register for the chance to climb it at the implausibly grand parks office in Mendoza. You confirm this is no ordinary holiday when the question arises, in all seriousness, about how you would prefer your body to be disposed of. Was Graham planning a sequel, working title Last Hours on Aconcagua?

My First Hours on Aconcagua comprised a learning experience akin to the team-building ­exercises on which some companies spend a fortune. Gina, Graham and I posed for a picture at the trailhead on the Saturday after Christmas. While the sign didn’t quite invite those who passed the threshold to “abandon hope”, it could well have said “abandon all norms of daily life”.

After that single step, the subsequent 10,000 paces that afternoon took us past a lovely lake edged with flowers and patrolled by chirruping songbirds 10 sizes down from the mighty condor. Rapidly, though, life was squeezed out of the ­landscape. The climax of the Andes resembles the outcome of a battle of the gods, with the Earth’s crust crushed, up-ended and casually stacked at odd angles. We strode through a desolate canyon towards a wall of ice and snow, and into a new way of living. Water does not emerge on demand from a tap; you painstakingly harvest snow to melt. Human waste has to be collected and saved throughout the climb, to be presented for inspection by the lucky park rangers at the end. And while a train of mules shuttles wearily between the park entrance and Base Camp, bearing ­everything from four-season sleeping bags to 2012 Malbec, for the main climb you are on your own.

“Welcome to my world,” Graham said. “You feel rubbish. It’s cold, it’s windy. I can’t imagine getting to the summit.”

His pessimism was warranted, judging by the estimates of how many attempts fail. For most climbers, Aconcagua turns out to be Mount Disappointment. Of the 1,400 people who tackle the peak during the brief summer window between December and March, between two-thirds and three-quarters fail. And an average of nine of them die. Those, at least, are the figures discussed at Base Camp – the  platform at 11,500ft that looks, from a distance, like a badly sprung mattress due to the muddle of tents and latrines poking from it.

We spent five long days at Base Camp, acclimatising while swapping yarns with other climbers (though with only an ascent last summer of 735ft Box Hill in Surrey under my belt, I just listened).

The star attractions comprised the magnificent seven from Summit Xperience, who we christened the Gavinistas after their leader, Gavin Attwood. They were mostly American, mostly male, mostly alpha. How hard were they? Well, one of them – ­Graham, a drill-bit salesman from North Dakota – had the Seven Summits tattoed on his torso, with a space left for the date he “tops out” on each. They were kind to us three British amateurs. We listened to Gavin’s motivational messages. “Fingers, toes and lives cannot be replaced,” he warned. “Fear is what keeps you alive.” It certainly keeps you awake.

Night at altitude crushes the spirit, smothering you beneath a blanket of cold, rare air that makes every gasp both painful and inadequate. The contrast between this long, slow suffocation and daytime is as sharp as the shards of ice that scar Aconcagua’s face. At 9.15am the sun takes its place in a piercingly blue sky. For the next 12 hours life feels manageable. You get on with the task in hand, which, as far as I could see, seemed to be: not climbing the mountain. Summiting may be the theoretical aim, but the vast majority of time is spent not ­ascending. Even when you do climb, the chances are you will descend immediately, thanks to the convergence of two principles: “climb high, sleep low” and “carry and cache”. The best way to acclimatise to the depleted oxygen levels is to “tag” high points during the day, then return to a lesser altitude to rest. And then there is the practical business of needing to transport fuel, food and fixtures to progressively higher camps.

So, you clamber up the rough scree from Base Camp to the first perch, Camp Canada, leave a bag full of bounty behind a rock, and descend. When finally you take up residence at Camp Canada, ­another day is filled with a carry to the next level, then rest, then a house move – depositing a neatly labelled package of ordure to collect on the ­descent. You climb most of the mountain twice.

In the unlikely event that you plan a camping holiday in upland Argentina, Nido de Condores, (“Condor’s Nest”) the second-highest camp, is the least bad choice. You are high enough (over three miles above the Pacific) to grandstand above the lesser Andes, which seem to hoist up their skirts as they retreat into the haze. The rare ­atmosphere invites you to wonder at the brilliance of the day and the dazzling stars at night. And right next door to the rockery that masquerades as a campground is a bank of snow to quarry for the high-altitude alchemy of tea-making.

The Gavinistas had got here the previous day. One of them – cool, strong Nick from Colorado –made a successful solo summit bid. The rest dug in against the predicted storm. With nothing between the world’s biggest ocean and the Condor’s Nest, summer nights get gusty. Gales rip at the tents. They destroy sleep, and eventually climbers’ dreams. At 10.38am on 9 January, Gavin announced: “We’re not going up. We’re going down.”

The mightiest team on the mountain had been beaten by weather and time. We three had been hammered by both, too, but were free of the ­tyranny of flight deadlines that had eroded the Gavinistas’ hopes. As they tearfully descended, we timidly ­ascended to the freeze-dried camp so quaintly named after an intestinal infection, to wait for a weather window in the bleak midsummer.

For a guidebook that boasts of its lightness (4oz), Aconcagua: Summit of South America packs quite a punch. It predicts the first three stages of the climb from Base Camp will take between two and five hours – with which we had comfortably complied. “Summit Day,” though, is noted as “10-18 hours”.

From the start, Graham’s grim prediction was well aimed: imagine tramping uphill through an industrial quantity of cat litter from before dawn to mid-afternoon, in a world in which half the oxygen has been eliminated. Excerpts from the lightweight guide illustrate my contention that this was a carefully constructed heavyweight act of revenge: “Cresta del Viento, famous for its fierce winds”; “The infamous Canaleta is a long gully, filled with scree”; “At this altitude, even a sprained ankle can get you into trouble”.

At this altitude, I thought, we are the mugs; cruising airline passengers can cheerfully ding the call bell for another drink, and note from the screen that the outside temperature is minus 25C.

And yet, if you can inure yourself to the brutal surroundings, overcome the morale- and energy-sapping scree, accept that the mountain has squeezed every ounce of joy from your heart and yet still plod ever upwards, eventually the pain stops. As does the ascent.

The world’s highest walk ends on a barren ­plateau that feels strangely like a modest viewpoint in a European municipal park.

Briefly, I stood at the highest point. Local time of 3.15pm in Argentina corresponds to midnight in Nepal, in January, which made it unlikely that anyone was climbing a 23,000ft-plus peak. So, for a moment I was probably the highest person on Earth. Everyone took pictures. Then the clouds rolled in; urgent stacatto radio exchanges cut through the breeze; and a guide ordered everyone off the mountain that eats fingers, toes and lives.

We were led down through an Andean blizzard from the worst of times to the best: to soap and salad and traffic and plumbing and art and beer and laughter and the rest of the human race.

Travel essentials

Getting there

I paid £1,347 for a ticket outbound via Buenos Aires to Mendoza on British Airways, and inbound from Santiago via Madrid on Iberia, through Travel Nation (01273 320580; travelnation.co.uk).

Red tape

A good way to arrange a climb is to apply through an agency such as Inka Expediciones (inka.com.ar), and to pay for support including local transport, some meals and services at Base Camp. I paid Inka US$2,200 (£1,466), including the climbing fee (equivalent to £550). Several specialists run guided trips, including Gavin Attwood's Summit Xperience (summitxperience.com).

More information

Aconcagua: Summit of South America by Harry Kikstra (Rucksack Readers, rucsacs.com, £9.99, 4 ounces).

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