Originally published: January 30th, 2020
How hard is it to climb Aconcagua?
Well, the aptly named ‘Mountain of Death’ almost killed me during my second attempt to summit it and after two bites of the Argentinian cherry; I bear two heart-breaking defeats upon my shattered shoulders. The last one hurts the most as I was oh-so-close to the top of the mountain.
I’m quite a fit lad with a decent mountain CV who prides himself on not throwing in the towel too easily. So yes, I would say that South America’s largest mountain is indeed rather tricky to summit.
While you undoubtedly should train like a man/woman possessed and treat this mountain with the respect that it deserves and demands, trekking above 5000 metres is a lottery of a lot of things that can go right and in my case, really wrong.
How Hard is it To Climb Aconcagua?
Unless you are an absolute savage like Nims Purja, climbing the highest mountain in South America and outside of the Himalayas will be a formidable personal challenge for you to partake in. After summiting Japan’s tallest peak I also answered the question how hard is it to climb Mt Fuji?
That one was a simpler task, this one is a very different beast.
The very first non-successful climb of Aconcagua was a year before the last. My team and I all failed that attempt for the same reason, a very simple one that none of us could have done anything about; the unprecedentedly awful weather, which resulted in the whole camp being closed down.
If you are wondering when the best time to climb Aconcagua is then check that post out as it will give you the best fighting chance of trying with good weather up there so you can hopefully tell me what it looks like at the top!
Before I share the wild experience that resulted in me going temporarily blind, losing 5 teeth and having acute frostbite on 4 fingers before being helicopter-evacuated down from base camp, let’s look at other factors that could make Climbing Aconcagua difficult.
This is not to deter you of course, but to get you as primed as possible for a successful Aconcagua summit and also a stern reminder to myself for when I go for the old “third time’s a charm” effort.
Is Aconcagua a Technical Climb?
While Aconcagua stands tall and proud at a mammoth 6962 metres (22,840 feet) high, it does not require technical mountain climbing skills in order to summit it.
The Mont Blanc climb was more technical and climbing Puncak Jaya was certainly rather devious in parts! Some of my friends with less technical climbing experience than me managed to topple Aconcagua and realistically the most technical ability that you will need up there is putting on your crampons if it gets icy on summit day, or opening a Clif bar wrapper with massive gloves on!
Even so, the fact that Aconcagua does not require technical mountaineering does not mean that climbing Aconcagua is easy.
How Hard is Climbing Aconcagua on Summit Day?
Summit day on Aconcagua is around 12 hours if the weather is kind to you and you feel strong as you ascend into higher altitude. My story came to an abrupt end after 15 hours and the boys were still clambering forward as I was unable to continue.
This was a group of strong lads, although the weather was kinder to us than the year before in terms of blankets of deep snow it had serious headwinds coming in at 80+kmph that held us back behind optimal schedule.
The final showdown is the most difficult day there. On top of the gruelling hike, clambering over rocks and the strong force headwinds there are things like altitude sickness to contend with, such is the harsh reality of life on a massive mountain.
Can a Beginner Climb Aconcagua?
While it is definitely possible for a newbie to climb Aconcagua, it is not recommended. I say this because fitness is only a part of the bigger picture and it’s wise to tackle some pretty naughty mountains beforehand (Like I did with Mount Elbrus amongst others) to see how you respond to altitude.
It goes without saying that if you’re a Doritos-munching couch potato and the most heart-rate-inducing exercise that you’ve done lately is getting triggered by some stranger on Twitter then you will not fair well on South America’s tallest mountain.
Even cardio bunnies and intense runners with the best intentions can get a rude awakening when they haven’t included resistance training before a big climb in harsh conditions, something that I wrote about in my Marathon des Sables review.
In short, train hard but try and attempt a few larger mountains. My beginner’s guide to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro should point you in the right direction.
Aconcagua Death Rate
Mount Aconcagua has an average of 3 deaths per year. With such a menacing nickname like ‘The Mountain of Death,’ you’d probably assume that it was mercilessly taking multiple lives every climbing season.
Much like mountain biking down the Death Road in Bolivia, there are always cheeky embellishments when it comes to marketing. That being said, an exaggeration in this example should be a celebrated one.
However, 3 deaths a year is still something to have a healthy level of fear about and it still holds the scary-enough record for having the highest death rate than any other mountain in the whole of the South American continent!
Hardest Day on The Mountain: Aconcagua Summit Day
The violent 80 km/hour wind that relentlessly beat against my face for the last 14 hours was starting to mix it up a bit.
Like a highly-skilled boxer, bobbing and weaving, looking for a moment’s weakness in its fledgling opponent, a gush of force walloped the left side of my body like a monster truck at high speed. I toppled over to the right and used every bit of my degenerating strength to stay upright with the aid of the walking pole in my right hand.
It was at this point I noticed I could not see a single thing out of my right eye. I quickly adapted, using my left eye and cocking my head to the side to compensate for my rapidly declining eyesight.
The left eye had roughly 50% vision but I didn’t need any more than that to know what would happen if I allowed myself to fall to the right – imminent death.
The traverse towards “the cave” – an important milestone on Aconcagua for those attempting a summit – was long and brutal, with zero shelters from the unapologetic gale-force winds. We had been walking along a narrow path for what seemed an eternity. To the right, the path was completely unprotected and a long, long way down – one of those that gives even someone like me who has no fear of heights an intense feeling of butterflies in the stomach.
As mentioned above, “The Mountain of Death” is one of Aconcagua’s well-earned nicknames, with 3 people a year on average perishing on South America’s tallest mountain. I was well aware of this but had pushed it deep into my subconscious.
I had no time for such statistics, and I wasn’t planning on becoming one of them.
I distinctly remember forcing a wry smile as best as my frostbitten, pursed lips could allow: “Fuck you, Aconcagua”, I whimpered into the oblivion, the intended menacing, Spartanesque war cry more akin to the pathetic wail of a wounded kitten.
I have no concept of time regarding what happened next; it could have been half an hour and it could well have been 5 hours, but after relying solely on my less-than-stellar left eye to navigate up the gradual incline at -31 degrees Celsius while buffeted by the famously remorseless winds of Aconcagua, the eyesight in my left eye dropped to around 10%. I could just about see silhouettes and moving blurs.
I knew the cave was roughly to the north of me. “One foot in front of the other”, I told myself, with an incredibly naive contingency plan of resting up at the cave and smashing a couple of Clif Bars so I’d be good to go again!
Later on, as I sauntered towards the cave, a guy approached me in the hurling snow and asked if I was OK. “I’ve lost my team,” I answered. “I AM your team, I am Dimitri. You are very tired. Can I help you?” he replied. I looked at Dimitri, our porter, and at this point, I could not see him. Or anything else. Complete, pitch blackness.
The last thing that I remember is another man asking if I was ok further along the path and telling me that I was nearly there. “Are you Bryan”, I asked him after a confusing dialogue. “Aye, I’m Bryan, mate”, confirmed my Irish friend as I fell to the ground, exhausted, grinding my teeth so hard with anxiety that I felt my top veneer snap off. I spat it out and put my head between my legs as I sat on a rock.
An intense shooting pain started in my right eye. My sombre heartache of a potential (and probable) second Aconcagua failure, so close to the top, mixed in with grave concern for my health.
With a cruel 350m to go to get to the summit, I made it to the cave. Friends say I arrived, emerging from the mist, like a zombie refusing to be killed.
I can’t remember the details of what happened next, but I am told that upon being informed that I was being sent back down the mountain I admitted I couldn’t see a damn thing, a tear ran down my cheek as I collapsed to the ground again, hitting my mouth off a rock and felt two teeth immediately become uprooted, I was given emergency hormonal injections in my bum administered by my mate Johnny.
When I came around, my mate Paul, who had selflessly sacrificed a summit in order to guide me safely down to high base camp, was roped up in front of me. Much like myself, he’s not the most patient man in the world, so I very much appreciated his calm demeanour as he instructed me on where to place my feet.
Roped in behind me was one of our guides, Viktor, whose fall from grace since the heroic actions on Elbrus was more like an unseasonable cascade.
With the aggressive, constant shooting pains in my right eye and an inability to see, he showcased the empathy levels of Ivan Drago huffing and puffing when I, heaven forbid, took rests as my completely spent body stayed down every time I fell on my arse, throwing in a few complaints at my moving too slowly.
When we got back to high camp the doctor put me on an IV drip, checked my eyes, and made the call for an emergency helicopter evacuation.
The guided, blind run to the helicopter was pretty freaky, as were the next few days as I received medical attention and still had no vision. With my 6/10 Spanish and severe anxiety, the best I could make out is that I had severe altitude sickness, which can manifest in many ways through several organs.
In my drunken-like state, I also removed a warm-weather glove and took off my goggles right up there in the Gods. Not the smartest move I’ve ever done, but those who have had serious altitude sickness will understand that you aren’t completely compos mentis in that condition.
I’ve had it before while on Mount Elbrus but was able to get by. I just acted like a very drunk person, wobbling up to the summit, and was so exhausted afterwards that I slept for 18 hours that night.
Some people have it worse and get pulmonary oedema – where they slowly drown in the fluid that accumulates in their lungs. Just as bad is cerebral oedema, where the brain swells with fluid, and in the worst cases ends up in a coma or dies.
My body decided to shut down via my eyes, which is as rare as rocking horse shit but considering I can now see well enough to at least write this blog post, I’d take this out of the three mentioned, even with the awful pain and the harrowing anguish of potentially never being able to see again.
Where Did it All Go Wrong?
You know how this ends already, but let’s do a Pulp Fiction time loop and go back in time so we can see where the warning signs were. Hopefully, this will help anyone who is about to climb a high-altitude mountain to make better decisions than me.
Throughout the whole expedition (with the exception of one day when I wore too many layers) I made a conscious effort to be at the front of the pack. I was either 1st, 2nd or 3rd man behind our main guide, Micha, at all times. A tough guy but a gentleman, incredibly articulate in his second language, he is an intellectual man of many interests who when not on a mountain is a doting husband and self-taught artisanal bread maker…
He is also a massive anti-vegan.
Actually, that’s not fair; he’s just old-school and he doesn’t understand it, so he was constantly worrying that my eschewing animal products were going to affect my health. Instead of wasting my time trying to convince him I was fine, I figured I’d just show him.
Even an aggressive cough and a heavy dose of the shits (that everyone had due to a higher-than-average mineral content in the water from the lake) weren’t enough to set me back at this point.
Admittedly though, the persistent whining about me not eating meat and constant attempts of proselytism did do my head in and that wasted a lot of my energy, I need to learn to not let things like this get to me.
On summit night we woke up at 2 am. I hadn’t slept, but I rarely do on summit nights. A battered copy of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” got me through my restlessness after attempts to get any decent shuteye had failed due to a Russian guy snoring like a freight train.
At this stage, I felt fine, and it wasn’t until dawn started creeping in that I noticed my vision was substandard. On one of the few occasions that we stopped for a break, I tried to drink my water, take a few long breaths, and close my eyes in an attempt to calm down and not panic over the blurred vision, but even my hot water in its high-quality thermos was frozen. So, dehydration got added to the list.
On the next break, hours later, my energy was waning, so I tried to eat a Clif Bar which turned out to be frozen solid. I shoved a handful of dates in my mouth and looked up and from this moment I felt I was in big trouble. Friends were engaging me in conversation, but their faces were just obscure shapes and cognitively I was struggling.
I wanted to tell a few chosen friends about my situation, but when I opened my mouth, words would either come out in incomputable slurs or I couldn’t speak at all.
I decided I needed a point of reference to follow, opting for Johnny’s bright blue jacket as I tried to fasten the buckles of my backpack. Failing miserably, I threw it on my back regardless, determined to stay at the front.
A couple of hours later I heard the C word.
There were whispers that we might not need them on Aconcagua, but as we had a dodgy weather window in a season that had been like a glorious spring for other climbers only a week earlier, we had to get the crampons out of our bags and put them on.
In my state, it felt like a monumental task. I couldn’t see them in my bag, let alone put them on with my big gloves, pulling straps through the smallest of holes and making sure they were on properly.
I felt sorry for Micha as he helped me out; I made it a lot harder for him as I couldn’t see my feet to adjust them to sit perfectly and I couldn’t keep up with his advice as I had severe mountain brain.
As we walked into the most viciously windy part of the mountain, where this blog post began, Johnny’s bright blue jacket faded from my sight and all I could focus on was part of the logo, which soon disappeared too.
This was, of course, the beginning of the end of my Aconcagua story.
How Hard Is it To Climb Aconcagua? Final Thoughts
Was it foolish of me not to turn around earlier, when my eyesight started to go?
Of course it was! There is no defence against that, but for what it’s worth, at the moment, I was in a “this too shall pass” and “nothing worth having comes easy” mood.
Climbing high-altitude mountains is difficult and one must often suffer for the glory. There were even moments when I second-guessed myself. I’d think things such as; maybe it’s just misty because of the wind and everyone else is in the same situation as me?
“Just crack on Anthony, you’ll be fine”, I told myself, remembering similar feelings of doubt at times of despair during the Marathon des Sables and my Mount Elbrus victory when I had to battle against an exhausting chest infection while climbing Europe’s largest mountain in -20°C cold and hills of snow.
Maybe there was a bit of ego thrown into the mix too? Probably, but at least I’m aware of mine. Most people (especially those who don’t think they have one) are not. Ignorance is not bliss. It’s just selective delusion.
I am about to post some very selective photos of my frostbitten fingers and broken teeth. It was a lot worse but much like my plastic surgery in Thailand admission, I will try my best to leave the rest to your imagination with respect to those sensitive to nasty images (if that’s the case then for sure stay away from the Thailand Vegetarian Festival in Phuket!)
Will I ever try and climb Aconcagua again? Johnny suggested it to me, hypothetically, two days later and I thought he was certifiably insane.
But since returning to Thailand I have found myself fantasising about it. It definitely won’t be next year and probably not any time soon, but don’t be surprised if one day I sneak offline for a few weeks and attempt to get the last laugh with Aconcagua.
It’s completely heartbreaking to fail to summit this mountain for the second time, especially when I came so close. It’s hard for people who don’t think like me to conceptualise this and some think I’m being dramatic.
You can tell people what you think but it’s very hard, or even impossible at times to get people to feel what you feel.
It’s also incredibly difficult having to cancel the Denali climb whilst I heal. Two other friends and I wanted to climb the Seven Summits together; they will now go on without me. This was my purpose, that which we humans crave so much and live a sub-standard life without.
But I have reinvented myself before and I will reinvent myself again.
The most important thing right now is my health. My four frostbitten fingers have gone from black to a hopeful shade of purple and the 17 burst blood vessels in my eyes are healing, as is the ulcer over my right pupil (apparently that’s what was causing the shooting pain), so my left eye is almost perfect again.
My right eye is making a comeback too, and the five teeth that I smashed, chipped and ground out in my angst have now been replaced with stellar dental crowns (surgery in Thailand has always been good to me) – so, that’s a win for vanity.
I’m often being told not to feel sad about the situation, that I should feel grateful for the lessons learned and that my blindness not being permanent.
I don’t see why I can’t feel both.
Bittersweet emotions are beautiful. They’re a constant reminder of the complexities of life and how lucky we are to be in it, and for as long as my heart beats, I’ll live for the moments that light up, break my heart, or do both at the same time.
For now, I have to rest up and slow down and when I am ready, I’ll be back with other crazy Man vs Clock challenges. Maybe I’ll take up extreme knitting or something while I heal, or go through yet another; “No, seriously. This year I’m totally going to learn the guitar” phase.
Further thoughts on this and more to follow in my next blog post: My 2019 in Review.
How hard is it to climb Aconcagua? You can make it harder on yourself by not training hard enough, or not turning back when you have a serious health issue that could be fatal or affect you for life, or if the weather decides to get angry; the difficulty level certainly gets ramped up.
I sincerely wish anyone attempting this climb all the best and I hope that my story has at least galvanised a person or two to prepare their mind and body to be strong enough to return home with a successful Aconcagua summit story (with all teeth intact, preferably).