Peak(s):  Aconcagua - 22841
Date Posted:  10/03/2016
Date Climbed:   02/15/2016
Author:  dereferenced
 World’s largest scree pile   

I climbed Aconcagua in February 2016. I went solo and unguided, but hired logistical support up to basecamp. I arrived in Argentina without booking anything ahead of time, and had no trouble getting a permit and hiring support when I got there. I was a bit apprehensive about showing up without plans, though, so I kept some notes on everything. Hopefully these can help someone else plan a trip.

Flights:

You have to get a climbing permit in Mendoza. You can either fly directly there or fly to Santiago and take a bus to Mendoza. Flying to Santiago is cheaper, but the bus ride adds a day to your trip, and I've also heard some claims that customs at the Santiago airport will confiscate food you've brought for the trip.
When I flew into Argentina, I had to pay a $160 reciprocity fee (visa fee), which needed to be paid online before I could check in to my flight. I think this fee has since been lifted, but check current regulations for Argentina or Chile before flying. The old payment website was here: https://reciprocidad.provincianet.com.ar/

Money changing:

For years, the best way to exchange money in Argentina was on the black market. As far as I can tell, this is no longer the case.
There's a small office in the airport to get enough cash for your first day. The exchange rate wasn't very good.
There are 2 official money changing offices on San Martin Ave, at the intersections with Catamarca and Lavalle, which offered good exchange rates. Outside of these offices, there are a lot of men walking around, offering to change money for you, but the rates they would offer were worse than what I could get from the legitimate exchange offices. These guys still serve a useful purpose if you need to change a few bills outside of normal business hours, but I think they should otherwise be avoided.

Hotels:

I tried 3 cheap (i.e. $40 or less) hotels in Mendoza, for the few nights I spent in town. By far the best of the 3 was Hotel Abril. Most other budget travelers stayed in youth hostels, that's probably cheaper and more fun, I was nervous that I wouldn't be able to store all my climbing gear safely at a hostel, but some other climbers I talked to didn't have a problem.

Permits:

Go to the main permit office, at 1143 San Martin Ave. They won't sell you a permit directly, you need to contract services through a support company first. The permit office will give you a list of guiding companies and their addresses.

I visited the offices of the 2 closest companies. Of those, Lanko was the cheapest, so I hired mules from them. You'll pay the mule fee directly to the support company, I think Lanko wanted $220 for one way transport to basecamp or $374 for roundtrip. That pays for 60 kg of weight, so you can split it between climbers (I paid it all for roundtrip, then found another climber on the mountain, to split the downhill cost). Then they'll give you another address where you can pay for the climbing permit. After paying for that, you take the receipt back to the main permit office and are issued a permit.
As an aside, I'll note that the permit office told me that solo climbers were required to hire mules from a support company. They explained that this was because of the dangerous, windy conditions on this el nino year. So... I'm still allowed to climb solo on the upper mountain, but I'm not allowed to carry my own bag on the approach hike, because the weather's too dangerous? It's funny how most "safety driven" climbing policies are just thinly veiled attempts to support local companies. Anyways, I was already planning to hire mules (hiking to base camp with 3 weeks of food would suck), and I'm glad they don't require guides on the mountain.

Transport:

You could hire a private van from Mendoza to the trailhead, through your support company, but they'll charge about $280 for the ride. You can take a public bus to the trailhead for about $10. When I went, the bus company was called Buttini, and they offered twice daily service, leaving Mendoza at 10:15 or 15:30, and arriving at Penitentes about 4 hours later.
When I hired mule services, the company booked a hostel for me in Penitentes, so I arrived in the evening, stayed one night, then Lanko drove me a few miles to the trailhead in the morning.

Food and supplies:

I find it's faster and easier to bring all your food from home. There's a few grocery stores in Mendoza, though, and I bought an extra 10 pounds of snack food before heading to the mountain. I wasn't able to find any freeze-dried food, maybe you can find some in the climbing shops, but it'd probably be a lot cheaper to just bring that from home.
I used a canister stove, it was easy to find gas canisters in town, but they were expensive ($12 for 8 oz). As always, look for fuel that's a mix of propane and isobutane. The climbing shop only sold piezoelectric lighters, which don't usually work at high altitude. Hit some corner convenience store instead and get yourself a typical (flint wheel) disposable lighter. Bring needle nose pliers and remove the child safety, it makes it much easier to use with gloves.
I didn't need much fuel at Plaza de Mulas and below, I wasn't melting snow, so I only needed a small amount for cooking. At the higher camps, I was melting 4 liters of snow a day and boiling about half a liter. At that rate, one 8 oz. fuel can lasted me about 3 days.
You can buy some food in Plaza de Mulas, if you get sick of whatever camping food you brought. I ate a couple pizzas at the caf there, they charge about $20, you can pay in pesos or dollars.


Climbing schedule:

This is what worked for me:
Day 1: Trailhead to Confluencia (11,000 feet)
2: Confluencia to Mulas (14,000 feet)
3: rest.
4: carry to Nido (18,400 feet)
5: rest.
6: move to Nido.
7: summit attempt, turned around near Independencia.
8: small hike for exploration
9: descend to Mulas.
10: ascend to Nido.
11: rest.
12: summit.

Some people who started the same day as me summited on day 6. I think that's about as fast as you can go, unless you're already well acclimated. Some people took longer than my 12 days to summit, but I think it wasn't usually acclimation holding them back.

Summit day:

I tried to summit twice, both times I started from Nido (18,400 feet) instead of the higher camps (around 20,000 feet). I find it's a big hassle to move camp, I don't sleep as well at high altitude, and overall it's easier to just climb another couple hours on summit day. This is a minority opinion, though - most guided groups summit from Camp Colera or Berlin.
On my first summit attempt, I started at 2 AM. It was a beautiful experience, walking up alone on a moonless night, with perhaps the clearest stars I'd ever seen. My timing was wrong, though -- the sun hadn't risen yet by the time I was at Independencia and the wind picked up heavily at that point. I couldn't stay warm, with all my layers on, I tried to shelter out of the wind to wait for it to warm up, but eventually I gave up and descended. I probably could have pushed harder and made it, but I was out of my comfort zone, wasn't sure it was safe.
On my second attempt, I started at 8 AM, maybe an hour after sunrise. The temperature was already reasonable, and by the time I got to the upper mountain, it was downright warm out, I shed most of my layers. I topped out around 3:30 PM, spend half an hour on top, then took 3 hours to get back to camp. Sunset wasn't until 9 PM, so I had daylight to spare. I met another climber who turned around because of cold that same morning. I didn't see afternoon storms any of the days I was on the mountain, so I'd say, if you have a similarly good forecast, an alpine start is counterproductive.
You need to do the math and figure out what works, based on your own pace. Which camp you leave from, and when, all depends on your fitness level. Some great athletes can summit from the 14,000 foot camp, while some people can barely make it from the 20,000 foot camp to the top.

Gear:

I'm just going to comment on a few items. I can make a full packing list if anyone wants that.
I brought a Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2 tent, because it's lightweight and good for a single traveler. The tent was adequate but it really flapped in the heavy winds, I needed earplugs to sleep most nights, and I'm unsure it would hold up in a really bad storm.
On the one night that I moved down from Nido back to Mulas, it would have been nice to have a separate basecamp tent. I ended up leaving my tent up high, and making a deal to borrow another climber's tent at basecamp. It's also possible to rent a bunk with one of the logistics companies, for about $20 a night. Seems a waste, but it could be easier than bringing 2 tents to South America or moving camp twice.
I wish I'd brought a water filter. Water at confluencia tastes awful -- it's pumped out of some springs, I think the taste comes from sulfur. I'm not sure if a filter would fix this, though. The solution might be to just bring enough water from the trailhead, to get you through a night and then up to Plaza de Mulas. Or, just put up with the taste, and don't camp there for long.
Water at Plaza de Mulas is tasty, taken from a small stream that's melting directly from snowfields. But the camp isn't all that clean, it might not be safe. I drank the stuff directly, had no problems during the trip, but got sick a week after getting home (so, maybe giardia?). I'd say filter it to be safe.
At higher camps, you'll be melting snow. I tried to just pick clean snow and melt it, I never boiled it. There's also some shit on the ground at Nido, though, maybe boiling would be safer. Or, melt and filter.
I got up the standard route carrying one trekking pole. I used crampons, but I never needed an ice axe. Maybe that could be different if you went earlier in the season and there's a lot of snow.
On summit day, I wore 8000m mittens with two hand warmers in each. I generally have a huge problem with keeping my hands warm, though.
I carried a huge down parka (~3 lbs) on summit day. On my first (cold morning) attempt, I used it and wasn't warm enough. On my second (warm afternoon) attempt, I never needed it.
I was able to climb up to Nido wearing light hiking boots (New Balance 967). I cached my double boots (spantiks) there and then only wore them on summit day.
I saw one climber go up to the summit, on a cold morning, in single boots (baturas). He succeeded that day, but suffered a lot. He had to take his crampons off and walk on scree instead of snow, because the compression from crampon bindings was making his toes too cold. You might be able to get by with single boots, if your feet are normally warm, or if you're fast and climb during the warmest hours of the day. Hell, you could probably summit in trail runners if you're very fast, conditions are good, and you top out in the afternoon. But for most people, double boots are safest.
I also saw a lot of people wearing 8000m boots. I think that's total overkill, and some of those boots (Olympus mons) aren't very durable, so they're wrecking a $1000 pair of boots on all the scree. A lot of these people also wore 8000m boots everytime they were above 14k, even on warm days. That sounds like a great way to make your feet sweat and get blisters. Carry your double boots in warm conditions, you'll be a lot happier.

Budget:

Total cost for this trip was under $2500. I already had all the gear I needed, though -- if you buy a lot of quality new gear, the cost could be a few thousand higher.
My roundtrip flight to Mendoza was about $1200, the permit was $600 (it costs a little more in December/January, less in February), I spent $300 on mules, maybe a few hundred dollars more on food, fuel, and hotels.

Some other ideas:

The dry Andes are beautiful, I was impressed by all the colors and textures of the landscape. The climbing on this trip was a bit dull, though - Aconcagua by the standard route feels a lot like climbing a bigger Mt Elbert. That's a good thing if you want to do a non-technical hike to high elevation, but if you like harder climbing, consider a trip to Peru or Nepal instead. If you do go to Aconcagua, here's a few ideas of extra things to do, to make the trip more interesting:
Bring a rope and 2 axes to basecamp, climb Cerro Cuerno on a rest day. I wasn't brave enough to solo this, there's a lot of crevasses visible, but it looks like a fun steep snow climb.
Traverse over from Nido to the polish glacier, to see another side of the mountain. Or, you know, summit that way, it'd be fun.
Hike to plaza Francia to look at the south face. I wouldn't recommend climbing that thing, though, it looks steep and loose and terrifying.



Comments or Questions
mtn_nut

places to stay
10/03/2016 12:30
My only two cents to add from my research is for people who know the points and miles game, Hyatt Mendoza and Sheraton Mendoza are both a really cheap point redemption for a nicer place to stay in town.


Trotter

useful beta
10/05/2016 22:00
thanks



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