People love to say that climbing Aconcagua is like taking a walk in the park. An 11-year old once did it, as did an 86-year old – surely it can’t be all that difficult? However the mountains hold a lot of mystery and getting to the top is no mean feat, requiring great guiding, technical skill, a bit of luck and a large logistics team behind you in case anything goes wrong. Despite over ambitious claims from many tour operators, far less than half actually make it to the summit.
Although statistically you are much more likely to get an injury or suffer a fatality while driving in the city, this can be a perilous climb which has claimed many lives. A visit to the chilling Aconcagua cemetery at the bottom of the mountain is all you need to realize that climbing it is a serious endeavor not to be taken lightly. As do the tales of frozen victims that lay scattered on the climbing routes to the top.
With a couple fatalities each season, I wanted to find out exactly how the rescue mission works and so spoke to rescue helicopter pilot Horacio Frechi and some local guides to find out what goes on during a rescue mission.
The most common incident for climbers to be brought down from the mountains is if they are deemed in too bad health to carry on – that’s usually from altitude sickness. When a doctor decides that your mission needs to be left unaccomplished for now, the poorly climber comes down hopefully walking with the rest of the group. Unfortunately many suffer from summit fever and don’t want to come down, perhaps due to the hefty U$6000 it costs for a simple climb, and often guides need to literally drag unwell climbers back down to sanity. The large majority, willing or not, make it back down on two feet though. If however something more dramatic occurs – like an injury mid-climb that requires a rescue operation, then this is where the chopper is sent out and the real action happens.
“The most difficult is the South Wall where you have to climb up using ropes,” explains Horacio, “and it’s the hardest to rescue from because there is no place to land the helicopter.” Few people attempt the notorious South Wall. However each year a handful of extreme, dare devil climbers do and if they need to be rescued this requires a huge logistics operation from the Park and rescue team. This is why declaring your intended route is really important – each route has a different complexity, price and associated risk.
When the rescue team gets the call, they need to first work out if the rescue is plausible – no rescue operations are attempted if they don’t think they will have success. The weather conditions have to be good enough for the helicopter to be sent out. With winds sometimes reaching up to 180kms per hour, and white outs leaving you only a few meters visibility, the fickle weather of the mountain has to be carefully calculated before you put more lives at risk.
“You are a slave to the meteorological conditions,” says Horacio, who explains that statistically they have 5 or 6 days a season where rescue operations are impossible due to the weather.
Easier rescue operations with the helicopter are achieved when it can land on solid ground and pick up the climbers, but in the case of the South Wall, the only way to rescue a climber is by hovering steadily above and dropping a static line to pick them up. Rescuers need to be on the mountain wall to be with the endangered climber and safely make sure that the one being rescued is no longer attached to the mountain (the helicopter’s strength is not enough to compete with that of the mountain) and that they are securely in the harness where they are airlifted to a medical base for immediate treatment. One of the greatest difficulties in these rescue missions is the altitude and density of the air, which seriously impedes the helicopter’s strength. The higher you go, the less power the helicopter has, so rescue missions at over 6000m become quite the challenge. Fortunately this is all rather rare and the main responsibility of the chopper at the Park is actually the slightly more pleasant, albeit less dramatic, job of bringing supplies up to different camps.
Climbing Aconcagua is still relatively safe, and if you have the right weather conditions getting up to the summit is a realistic goal. Well-known stories of climbers both incredibly young and old making it up there, guides that continue to smoke 20 a day while puffing their way up the hill, and speed climbers managing to make it to the top in less than 24 hours perhaps overplay the simplicity of the climb; but almost every guide will tell you that getting to the top is not that predictable. Physical strength, mental willpower and luck also play key roles.
The saddening stories of those who don’t make it often revolve around poor planning and adverse weather conditions. It is not obligatory to have a guide as you climb Aconcagua and unfortunately many climbers attempt to summit without a guide. This can be hazardous especially when you end up off course in an unexplored route.
If you want to climb Aconcagua this season or next, make sure you go with a well-recognized guiding group and get the appropriate insurance cover for all eventualities.
Aconcagua season runs until 31st March. Park permission and more information can be found at www.aconcagua.mendoza.gov.ar
If you don’t make it
If you don’t manage to summit, don’t despair. There are some stunning walks around the rest of the area that are really worth your time and also act as great acclimatizing exercises.
Around the ski resort of Penitentes, the summer time offers a host of walks that will get your calves in great shape and you can also get some spectacular mountain views and chase some glacial waterfalls.
Aconcagua Park can also be explored for smaller hikes where you can make your way to the base camp to get a real feel for the buzz of climbing season while exploring on foot some of the many different walks in the area.
Speak to well known tour agencies operating in the Andes, or contact Hotel Ayalen (www.ayelenpenitentes.com.ar) who as well as offering special accommodation packages in the area, can also organize guided walks for you in the area and help calm that rumbling stomach at their excellent restaurant.