IntroOver the past few years I’ve received numerous requests for information on how to organize private expeditions to climb the Polish Routes on Aconcagua. While I’ve certainly enjoyed communicating with people from all over the world I thought it would be a good idea to post it here for anyone interested. I am be no means an expert on these routes nor am I a guide so take this information for what it is, the culmination of what I’ve learned along the way. Use it, along with your personal knowledge and experience, as you see fit. For many climbers an expedition to Aconcagua is the first big trip they’ll organize so I’ve included a lot of information with them in mind.
ItineraryThe itinerary below allows climbers time to enjoy Mendoza both before and after the climb while averaging 1,000 feet of ascent per day on the mountain. It can be adjusted to suit your personal needs but it’s a good idea to stay in town a day or two before the climb in case your gear doesn’t arrive with you when you land in Mendoza. This has happened on numerous occasions and leaving time for it to arrive could mean the difference between a relaxing trip and a hurried expedition. For those on a tight schedule it is possible to land in Mendoza in the late morning, get your climbing permit and supplies and travel to Penitentes all on the day you arrive except perhaps on weekends. Permit office hours are Monday through Friday 8AM to 6PM and weekends 9AM to 1PM. Permits are not sold on December 25th and January 1st.
|1||Fly out from your city of departure (typically an overnight flight)|
|2||Arrive in Mendoza and check into hostel or hotel|
|3||Rest day, get climbing permits, food, fuel and pack gear for the trek in|
|4||Travel from Mendoza to Los Penitentes and check into hostel or hotel|
|5||Drive to Punta de Vacas and walk to Pampa Lenas (5-7 hrs, 8,860’)|
|6||Walk to Casa de Piedra (5-6 hrs, 10,500’)|
|7||Walk to Plaza Argentina (5-7 hrs, 13,800’)|
|8||Rest day or short acclimatization hike to 15,000'|
|9||Carry load to Camp 1 (16,400) and return to base camp|
|10||Move to Camp 1 (16,400’)|
|11||Rest day or a short acclimatization hike to the AA Col|
|12||Carry load to Camp 2 (19,300’) and return to Camp 1|
|13||Move to Camp 2 (19,300)|
|14||Rest day or a short acclimatization hike to 20,000+|
|15||Summit day (22,840’) and return to Camp 2|
|16||Summit day or extra day for inclement weather or acclimatization|
|17||Summit day or extra day for inclement weather or acclimatization|
|18||Summit day or extra day for inclement weather or acclimatization|
|19||Descend to base camp (13,800)|
|20||Walk to Pampa Lenas (8,860’)|
|21||Walk to Penitentes, drive to Mendoza and check into hostel or hotel|
|22||Day in Mendoza for shopping, eating, wine tasting, etc.|
|23||Fly out of Mendoza (typically an overnight flight)|
Mule Services and Land Transportation in ArgentinaIf you’re planning to use a mule service to get your gear to and from base camp it’s a good idea to make these arrangements before you go. There are plenty of firms to choose from and all of the arrangements can be made via email and paid for when you arrive in Argentina. Many firms offer a wealth of services but basic packages usually include personal transportation between Penitentes and the trailhead, mules to carry gear to and from base camp, use of their mess tent (in bad weather and if not busy with those who paid for meals), gear storage tent, toilet and garbage removal. Some of the more popular companies are Aconcagua Trek, Aymara, Fernando Grajales Expeditions and Inka Expeditions.
Additional services such as hotel or hostel reservations, airport pick up, driving you around town to get your permit and supplies, transportation to and from Penitentes, porters and even prepared meals at base camp can all be arranged for additional fees. However, a more interesting way to accomplish some of this is to simply get a taxi from the airport to your accommodations in Mendoza and walk everywhere you need to go. You can also take the local bus to Penitentes which is less expensive. A friend of mine did this last season and told me the trip was $30 Pesos each way. Take a cab to the bus terminal in Mendoza and the bus can either drop you off at the Vacas valley trailhead, just before Penitentes, or right in Penitentes. You can also get on the bus going back to Mendoza at these same locations.
FlightsBooking flights to Mendoza is easy through any of the online reservation companies. My favourite has always been Expedia which allows people to select individual departure and return flights that suit their schedule. To make the most of your time when you arrive try selecting a connecting flight to Mendoza that lands in the late morning which will give you almost the whole day in town. Also, contrary to what you may have heard none of the climbers on my trips has ever experienced any baggage problems when connecting through Santiago, Chile but we’ve never entered Chile and taken the bus to Mendoza as some climbers do so I can’t comment on that. Also, when flying out of Mendoza there is departure tax to be paid at the airport before checking in with the airline.
Gear List and MapBelow is a generic gear list you can use along with your personal knowledge to decide what to bring. Food is packed in bags numbered 1 through 4 identifying what is needed for the trek in, at base camp and camps 1 and 2 respectively making it easier to know what to take up with you on carry days. The personal items bag is something light weight and nice to have for keeping all those small items together so you don’t have to search your tent for them. Mule services charge by weight so try to limit your duffle weight to no more than 35-40 kilograms if you want to keep costs to a minimum. Remember, whatever you carry above base camp in several trips must be carried down in one. For a good map of the mountain check out Aconcagua the Map and order one before you leave. This map may also be available at the front desk of the Hotel Ayelen in Penitentes.
|Base Layers and Socks||Head and Hands||Jackets and Pants||Footwear|
|Lightweight underwear||Headlamp||Convertible pants (for trek in)||Trail shoes or boots (for trek in)|
|Light top (for trek in)||Glacier glasses||Soft shell pants||Sandals (for trek in)|
|Lightweight top||Spare pair of glasses||Gore Tex pants||Double boots|
|Mid-weight top||Hat with sun shade||Wind shirt||Down booties (optional)|
|Mid-weight bottom||Toque||Soft shell jacket||Gaiters|
|Liner socks||Balaclava (light weight)||Gore Tex jacket||Crampons and pouch|
|Outer socks (light for trek in)||Goggles||Synthetic or down jacket||
|Outer socks (1 mid-weight)||Liner gloves||Fleece jacket and pants (optional)||
|Outer socks (1 heavy)||Technical gloves||
|Water, Food, Cooking and Fuel||Packs, Sleeping and Other Gear||Personal Items||For the Polish Direct Add|
|Food bags 1-4||Carry on + personal bag||Personal items bag||Rope (60M)|
|Aqua Mira drops||Duffle bags (2)||Lip balm spf 30 (2)||Ice tool|
|Water bottle and parka (2)||Main pack (70-80L)||Sunscreen spf 30 (3 small tubes)||Ice screws (2 or more)|
|Stove(s)||Day or summit pack 20-30 L||Kleenex (2 small packs)||Pickets (2 or more)|
|Stove repair kit||Pillow case (nice to have)||Alcohol hand sanitizer (2 small)||Harness|
|Pot(s)||Inflatable pad and repair kit||Baby wipes (2 small packs)||Crevasse rescue gear|
|Insulated mug||Sleeping pad(s)||Toilet paper (1-2 rolls)||
|Plastic bowl with lid||Sleeping bag (0F or warmer)||Toilet bags (for high camps)||
|Eating utensils||Tent||Pee bottle (for high camps)||
|Lighters (3)||Ice axe||First aid kit||
|Dry sac or large garbage bag (2)||Trekking pole(s)||High altitude medications||
|Fuel bottles (you decide)||
||Compass, map and GPS||
||Tooth brush and paste||
||Camera and case||
||Large Ziploc bags (for garbage)||
||Spare batteries as required||
FoodWe’ve always taken whatever food we need with us from home but there are a couple of supermarkets downtown like the Norte Supermarket on Av. Las Heras and the Carrefour Supermarket on the corner of Belgrano and Av. Las Heras. For those who wish meals are available at base camp for a price from either your mule service provider or any one of the expedition outfitters’ tents. Our favourite has been Daniel Lopez Expeditions where you can meet climbers from all over the world and enjoy great food, tea and even homemade beer. It isn’t cheap ($30 for a pizza and $10 for a beer in 2009), but if you have the money it’s a nice treat.
Packing for flightsMost climbers take two large duffels and two carry-on bags for this trip. Check baggage limits before leaving as overweight or extra bags can be costly, especially when leaving Argentina. If you have to purchase duffels for this trip buy ones that meet your airline’s overall size limitations and are of good quality. Duffels see a large amount of abrasion on the mule ride to and from base camp and, although they will probably end up with holes in them, you don’t want them splitting open in transit.
When packing your duffels lay your backpack on the bottom of one and place long, sharp items like trekking poles and your ax directly on top of the pack. Try to balance your total gear weight between the two duffels evenly. Fill every nook and cranny you can by placing smaller items inside larger ones. You’ll also want to rinse out your fuel bottles and air out your stoves before packing them.
If this is your first large expedition practice packing all your gear at home as it often takes two or three tries to get everything in. If you have a bathroom scale you can check your duffel weights before leaving for the airport. When you arrive at the airport you can also find an unused ticket counter scale to double-check the weights before checking in. This little trick has saved me on a couple of occasions. If one of your duffels is over the limit try moving some gear between duffels and your carry on bags. Placing heavier items like boots and tents in your carry on might get you under the limit.
MendozaMendoza is an amazing city with lots to see and do. The weather is warm and dry and the people are very friendly. Most purchases are made in Argentine Pesos and there are plenty of banks and currency exchange offices available downtown. The most up to date exchange rates can be found at XE or DolarHoy (click ver contizaciones). If you are exchanging US dollars make sure you bring bills that aren’t worn out as they may be refused. Also, make sure to take your passport with you as it will be needed to complete any transactions. There are also several ATMs available downtown, some of which dispense both Pesos and US dollars, but not all bank cards work. There are also numerous businesses that provide long distance telephone service at a very reasonable price if you want to call home.
Hotels and HostelsThere are plenty of good hotels available throughout Mendoza and reservations can be made via email. Most are very clean 2 and 3-star hotels and some of the more popular ones are El Portal Suites at Necochea 661 and the Hotel Nutibara at Mitre 867. Those wishing the best of accommodations might check out the Park Hyatt Hotel and Casino at Chile 1124 which has a nice buffet breakfast every morning. Most of the other hotels offer a continental style breakfast. There are also several hostels to stay at including the Hostel Independencia at Av Bartolome Mitre 1237 close to the downtown core. When at your hotel pick up a map of the city available at the front desk. In Penitentes there is the Hotel Ayelen but it’s expensive for what it has to offer. A little ways up the highway is a reasonably priced hostel with a great restaurant near by.
Climbing permitsGetting your climbing permit is an easy process. In 2009 the permit office was located on the top floor of the Subsecretaria de Turismo office located at 1143 Av. San Martin between Catamarca and Garibaldi. You’ll need your passport in order to obtain your permit so don’t forget to take it with you. The office is only open until 1PM on weekends so plan to get there early if you want a permit on those days. Once you fill out the application form you’ll have to leave the building to pay the fee at one of several businesses downtown. The employees at the permit office are very helpful and can direct you to the nearest place. Once you’ve paid return to the office and present your receipt to the employees who will process your permit. While on the mountain make sure you carry your permit with you at all times.
For more information on permit costs, office hours and more interesting information about Aconcagua consult the Aconcagua.com website.
Fuel and WaterWhite gas and pressurized fuel canisters are both used on Aconcagua. In Mendoza you can get fuel at Mountain Gear (El Refugio) at Espejo 285. White gas is sold by the liter and you should take your fuel bottles when you go. If you don’t they’ll sell it to you in plastic bottles which have been known to break and contaminate food on the mule ride in. Pressurized fuel canisters are also available here. You may also be able to purchase fuel from your mule service provider so check with them while making your arrangements. More climbing gear and rentals can also be found at Orviz located at 536 Juan B. Justo.
The amount of fuel you require will depend on your choice of routes and the type of food you bring. You can save a lot of fuel by taking two-part Aqua Mira drops, available at many outdoor stores in North America, to treat the water while on the mountain. These are especially useful at Camp 2 if you don’t have a large vestibule to cook in and high winds prevent you from lighting your stove. During the expedition water is usually available on the trek in, at base camp and camps 1 and 2 but be prepared if it isn't. However, if you plan to stay at the seldom used camp 3 at the end of the traverse no water is available that I know of so be prepared.
Packing for the Trek to Base CampWhile in Mendoza you’ll probably want to repack your gear for the trek in. If using a mule service organize your gear so each duffle weighs 20 or 30 kilograms which makes it easier for the muleteers to load the mules. At each camp your gear will be dropped off in one spot that may be some distance from your preferred tent site. In order to limit the amount of gear you need to carry around pack one duffle as a trekking bag for every one or two climbers with all the food, fuel and gear you need for the trek in. This way you only have to carry one duffle to and from your tent site. Be sure to pack any items you don’t want damaged from abrasion (like tents) in the middle of a duffle so they’re protected. It’s also nice to carry a toque and warm jacket in your day pack on the trek in as it gets cool at camp after the sun goes down and you may have to wait for your gear to arrive. Tent stakes are not usually required anywhere on these routes as the ground is too hard and there are plenty of rocks around to secure your tent. It’s also a good idea to replace your tent’s stock cords with something stronger like 3mm static cord as the high winds on this mountain may cause the cords to be damaged from constantly sawing over the sharp edges of rocks found in many of the walls protecting the tents.
Travelling to PenitentesThe trip to Penitentes is a 3+ hour drive through the countryside. You can get there by taking the local bus from Mendoza or hiring a personal van through your mule service. If you hire a van they’ll often stop for lunch at a very nice restaurant in Uspallata along the way. They will also drop you off at the mule service office where you can weigh all your gear before paying for the services you’ve arranged. After that change in to your trekking clothes, fill your water bottles and ascend the ski hills across the highway to over 10,000 feet to start your acclimatization.
Vacas Valley to Pampa LenasBefore walking over to your mule service provider’s office change in to your trekking clothes, fill your water bottles and pack any non-climbing clothing and gear in your carry on bag. You can leave this bag at their office while you’re on the mountain and pick it up when you return. You will then be driven to the trail head in the Vacas Valley and from here you can follow the road in to the valley and continue on the well marked trail to Pampa Lenas. The Vacas Valley can be quite hot during the day (80-90F) and typical trekking clothes include a hat with sun shade, a lightweight and light coloured top, a wind shirt, light underwear, shorts or convertible cargo pants, light socks and trekking boots or running shoes. Along the way there are several streams from which you can refill your water bottles and treat the water. When you arrive at Pampa Lenas take your permit and check in with the ranger. There is water available outside the ranger station and a toilet in behind. A tent isn't necessary for sleeping here and it's quite nice to sleep under the stars. Your choice.
Pampa Lenas to Casa de PiedraAfter walking out of Pampa Lenas cross the narrow bridge about ¼ mile outside of camp to the other side of the river and continue on the well worn trail. About half way to Casa de Piedra is a nice flat section of trail with a lot of small boulders where you can stop for lunch. When you arrive at Casa de Piedra set up camp and find a good place to get out of the sun as this area can get extremely hot in the afternoons. Water and a toilet are available behind the “house of stone” where the muleteers will camp. The muleteers are very friendly and those who speak Spanish can enjoy their company in the evening.
Casa de Piedra to Plaza ArgentinaBe prepared to leave Casa de Piedra early in the morning (usually 7:00 am) as the muleteers will want to get their mules to base camp and back all in one day. Cross the Rio Vacas by either walking across wearing sandals or negotiate a price with the muleteers to take you across. Once across you’ll be on the right-hand side of the Rio Relinchos where the well worn trail leads up the Relinchos Valley. About 1/3 of the way to base camp you’ll ascend switchbacks to the top of a large hill which is a good place to rest. While on the top of the hill make note of where the trail crosses the river below as this will be where you’ll want to cross. When crossing the river trekking poles help with stability in the cold, fast flowing water. Wearing sandals is recommended as the crossing is very rocky.
Plaza ArgentinaWhen you arrive at base camp, Plaza Argentina, locate your mule service provider’s tent and check in with the manager. They can often direct you to tent sites near by that offer more protection from the wind and will tell you where you can get water and where their toilet is located. For those interested phones and Internet services are also available here for a reasonable price.
After setting up camp rest for a while before taking your permit and checking in with the rangers and the medial tent for a mandatory check up. The rangers will issue you numbered garbage and waste bags and the medical staff will check your blood pressure and oxygen saturation. The doctor will also request that you check back in with them before moving up to camp 1. High blood pressure and low oxygen saturation is normal when you first arrive and usually get better while resting and drinking plenty of water over the next couple days. Be sure to inform the doctor if your blood pressure is normally above average at home or if you’re taking medication for it. Some years a climber’s blood pressure had to below a predetermined level (150 in 2009) before you would be permitted to go higher on the mountain.
During your rest day at base camp it’s a good idea to stay active by hiking up to 15,000 feet or so to help your acclimatization. Before moving up to camp 1 pack all the clothing and gear not needed higher on the mountain in to one duffel and store it in your mule service provider’s storage tent.
Camp 1Your first trip to Camp 1 is a carry day to cache all the gear, food and fuel you’ll need higher on the mountain. Just head up the trail out of base camp and follow it through the mine field. Continue through the Penitentes until you reach camp. There are three main areas here to set up your tent. The lower section at about 16,200’ can be crowded and at times gets flooded in the afternoon from glacial runoff. Further up there are sites on the right often occupied by professional guiding services but higher still, at about 16,400, are several excellent sites away from the crowds with fantastic views of the valley below.
After locating a vacant spot reserve it by placing your cache directly in the middle of the site. If no sites are available ask around to see if anyone is planning to move up the following day. If you find someone ask if they would kindly place your cache in their site before they leave. Water is available from the glacial runoff on the right hand side and being higher on the mountain allows you to get your water before it passes by the other climbers. Move up the following day and spend the next day resting. During your rest day here it’s a good idea to hike up higher on the mountain to help your acclimatization, perhaps to the Aconcagua-Ameghino Col above, but it can be quite windy and cold there so be prepared. Before leaving for camp 2 bury all your trash and waste under some rocks away from the tent sites and pick it up when you descend.
Camp 2I’ve always found the carry to camp 2 to be one of the most tiring days on the mountain but that’s just me. Follow the trail out of camp 1 up the right-hand side to the AA Col and then head left up the switchbacks to camp 2. Just like camp 1 there are several areas to set up your tent here. The normal area is, understandably, near two large pools of water. Here there are several nice sites with rock walls to protect you from the wind. Slightly higher up towards the bottom of the glacier and the start of the Traverse Route are more sites that offer slightly less protection from the wind. The most protected sites are across the glacier in amongst the rocks but they are furthest from the available water. To access these sites follow the lesser used trail higher up on your left about half way between the AA Col and camp 2. Again reserve your spot by placing your cache in the middle of it. Move up to camp 2 the following day and spend the next day or so resting. As always it’s a good idea to hike up higher on the mountain during your rest days to prepare for your summit attempt.
Camp 3At the end of the traverse (just over 20,000’) is camp 3, typically only used by climbers wanting to descend via the Normal Route but could be used to shorten the summit day. If you plan on using this camp add a couple of days to your itinerary but know that no liquid water available here that I know of and there are only a couple of sites available.
Summit DayThe time it takes you to get to the summit will depend on your conditioning, the weather and your acclimatization. On average climbers should prepare to leave their tent between 3-5:00 AM, allow 8-10 hours to reach the summit and 3-4 hours to return. If it’s windy when you get up don’t be afraid to “stick your nose in it” and try for the summit. Often the wind subsides as you ascend and you’ll kick yourself for missing out on a glorious summit day. Follow the trail through camp to the start of the traverse and continue to camp 3. Above this you’ll connect with the Normal Route (20,600’) and continue up to the Independencia Hut. Continue upwards to a very windy ridge and follow the traverse to ‘El Dedo’ (the Finger). Further up is a shear rock face at the base of the Canaleta that’s a good place to take a break. To ascend the Canaletta follow the trail up the right-hand side being careful of any rock fall triggered by other climbers. Just before you get to the top is a short traverse across the Guanaco Ridge with fantastic views of the upper South Face when weather permits. Continue to the summit and descend the way you came making sure not to miss the traverse cut off back to camp 2 on the way down.
Coming outWhen you’re ready to leave camp 2 pack up your gear and follow the trail back to base camp. This is a long and difficult day as you have to carry down everything you brought up after a long summit day. It’s not uncommon for packs to weigh over 70 pounds so make sure to bring a pack that’s able to handle such a heavy load. Rest at camp 1 and be sure to pick up anything you cached there before continuing down.
When you arrive at base camp rest a while before setting up your tent and getting your extra gear out of the storage tent. Check in with the rangers who will tell you where to put your human waste. Your trash can be placed in your numbered trash bag and left with your mule service provider but make sure the manager signs your permit to indicate they will be taking it out of the park on your behalf. If you’re leaving the following morning change in to your trekking clothes and pack up your unneeded gear. Finish packing your duffels in the morning, drop them off with the camp manager and follow the trail back to Pampa Lenas.
The following morning walk to the trailhead where you mule service provider will pick you up and take you back to their office to retrieve anything you left with them. From here you can either wait for the bus back to Mendoza or have your personal van take you. Once back in Mendoza get yourself cleaned up and enjoy the city and its culture after a successful climb.
Tips and TricksHere are a few tips and tricks I've picked up from others along the way for those who may not know:
As most of you know taking care of your feet on the mountain is very important. When you get to camp each day put on dry socks and try drying wet ones using body heat by placing them on your torso between your base layers and your outerwear. It's not a pleasant smell but you probably don't smell that good anyways so no harm done. If you leave your boots in your tent's vestibule during the night cover them up or turn them upside-down to prevent spindrift from getting in them.
Sleeping on any mountain is difficult so the pillow case I mentioned previously is really nice to have. If you want one check out the Therm-a-Rest Trekker available at most stores. Also, on long trips in cold weather two sleeping pads are more comfortable than one. If you find your sleeping bag constantly slides around or rotates around you during the night try placing one pad on the ground, your inflatable pad on that and then a smaller, thin closed-cell foam pad on top. The foam tends to keep nylon bags in their place.
Condensation occurs in most tents but a little trick to reduce this is to leave your tent door(s) open about 1" at the top allowing some of the hot, moist air to escape during the night. Also, to prevent clothing and other gear from getting wet while you sleep stuff them in your empty sleeping bag stuff sack and draw it closed.
When moving up to higher camps it's nice to get an early start for a couple of reasons. You might get to the next camp ealier than other climbers in which case you could get a better choice of tent site. Also, getting there earlier gives you more time to set up everything and relax. The key to getting a quick start in the morning is to have everything prepared the night before. Fill your water bottles, get your breakfast ready, pack up whatever you can, etc. Water bottles don't tend to freeze during the night if you place them between you and your partner and off the floor of your tent.
FinallyWell that’s it. I hope you found some of the information useful to make your planning easier and to increase your odds on having a safe and successful trip. I haven’t included a great deal of description about the trek in or the climbing routes because I don’t want to spoil the adventure. That’s why you’re going on your own isn’t it? For those with more experience on these routes please send any constructive criticism or corrections via email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll update the information. Anyone wanting more information please feel free to contact me by private message or at the email address above.