Earth’s Edge: Aconcagua

I’d noticed that Great Outdoors tend to host talks after closing in their Chatham St. store. Unfortunately I’d also noticed that, the ones I’d seen at least, tended to be on Tuesday nights at seven; when yours truly is in college. So when I saw on their facebook page that there was going to be a talk on a Wednesday, in a week where my work roster would let me get to the talk, and that talk was about climbing one of the Seven Summits, I was there!

aconcagua location

Aconcagua, Argentina. Image: Wikipedia

I registered through a link on facebook that Monday and got an email reminder of the event Wednesday around lunchtime from Lauren from Earth’s Edge.

That evening I got out of the office at about ten past six. I was off the Luas at Stephen’s Green about a quarter to seven and headed towards Great Outdoors. I made a quick stop to grab an americano in the Starbucks across the road; it’d been a long day and I wanted to be fully awake for the talk.

Coffee in hand, I hurried back across the street and was met with a locked door. At this point I was a little worried that I’d missed it but a staff member let me in saying “Hi, are you here for the talk?”

“Hey, yea,” I moved towards the stairs, “have they started?”

“No, it’ll be about five minutes.”

At the top of the stairs I met James, who’d be giving the talk. He told me we’d kick off about seven and also that everything in store was 15% off for the night. Part of me lamented that this wasn’t the week after pay day rather then two weeks before, but in hindsight that’s probably the reason I didn’t leave with a wetsuit, a new helmet for kiteboarding, a climbing harness (just in case I ever need one), and the inability to pay next month’s rent.

There were about ten people in the audience and I found myself sitting next to Keith, who described himself as “more of an adventurer than a climber”. This had obvious appeal. Keith had done some climbing in South America already and had been on an expedition to Antarctica last year and so the conversation went until James was about to start.

Aconcagua isn’t a very technical peak, you just really need to love hardship.

-James

At 6,961 metres (22,838 ft) and located in the Andes mountain range, in Mendoza Province, Argentina, Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside of Asia, the highest in the Western Hemisphere and the highest  in the Southern hemisphere.

 

James started out by telling us he wasn’t here for the hard sell, Aconcagua is a tough mountain to climb. Acclimatisation, high winds, extreme cold and a long summit day mean there’s never a guarantee that a given expedition will reach the summit.

With that in mind, over the next hour he took us through an impressive presentation of how an Earth’s Edge expedition to the mountain looks.

earths edge aconcagua

Aconcagua Expedition. Image: Earth’s Edge

The entire itinerary covers 22 days from Dublin to Dublin, with 16 days on the mountain (including rest days and two spare summit days if needed).

The Earth’s Edge expedition takes a route through the Vacas Valley as opposed to the normal route from the north. This route is longer, but is less steep, making for a more gradual ascent with more time for acclimatisation. The expedition will descend via the normal route, so you get the best of both worlds.

Terrain was described as nothing too steep and nothing too technical, there’s lots of scree but it’s no worse than Croagh Patrick.

If you’re considering the trip you’ll need to be comfortable with the terrain and have a high level of fitness. On day eight, expedition members will carry all of their gear from Plaza Argentina (4,200m) to Camp 1 (5,000m) and return for a rest day and to boost acclimatisation. On day 11 the same happens from Camp 1 to Camp 2 (5,500m) and back.

 

I asked James how heavy a load we should expect to carry and he said you’d want to be comfortable carrying 25kg at zero altitude in Ireland for a long day, but you won’t be carrying more than 20kg when you’re out there, depending on your gear. The information pack that was emailed to everyone the next day advises that long hikes in Ireland, for several days  in a row carrying a 20kg backpack should present no problems for you.

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James giving his presentation.

The issue of temperature and extreme cold came up when James showed us a picture of Camp 3: Camp Colera at 6,000 metres. There were two rock formations in the picture and like a genius I thought “if I took my climbing shoes with me I could get a picture of me bouldering at six thousand metres above sea level, now there’s a picture nobody will have!”

So I asked what kind of temperature to expect at Camp 3. Depending on the wind and weather, we could be looking at -40 degrees. A genius I am not. Throughout the trip we can expect temperatures to range from 0 to 30 degrees during the day and -30 to 10 degrees at night, again depending on wind chill and weather, which can change rapidly at high altitude.

The summit day is by far the most demanding (but most rewarding) day on the expedition. You’ll start getting ready at about four in the morning and begin climbing at half five. Over the next ten hours or so of trekking you’ll ascend from 6,000m to 6,962m along the last part of the normal route. To put this in perspective, you’ve just spent the last two weeks climbing a mountain, and now you’re going to climb Lugnaquilla. On top of that mountain. And then you’re going to climb some more. After the summit it takes roughly four to five hours to get back to Camp 3. We were told we’d have to be honest both with ourselves and with the expedition team; we’d need to leave something in the tank for the way back down. As James pointed out: any experienced mountaineers will tell you that most accidents happen on the way back down for that reason.

Throughout the presentation the difficulty of Aconcagua wasn’t sugar coated at all. By way of some reassurance though, James said “I’m being negative telling you how hard it is, but people climb it all the time. They’re doing it now and if they can do it you can do it. You just need to have the mental strength and need to love hardship. You need to really love it!” Maybe it wasn’t entirely reassuring.

 

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James and myself after the presentation.

The expedition team will consist of an Irish guide and Irish expedition doctor, two English-speaking Argentinian guides, and 5-12 climbers.  Earth’s Edge follows a responsible travel policy, putting money back into the local economy, operating a strict “leave no trace” trekking policy and offsetting carbon for their employees. More information on their responsible travel policy can be found here. They are also Ireland’s only fully licensed and financially bonded adventure travel company and have a price match guarantee.

According to James, Earth’s Edge will give you the best chance to summit of any company in the world. In their first year running this expedition they had nine climbers and five summited, in the second year they had three climbers and two summited.

His final advice:

Control the controllables. I’m always hesitant when people decide they’re going to climb Aconcagua to climb the mountain. If the mountain’s in a good mood it’ll let us up.

It’s definitely an expedition I’d love to go on, at the moment I have neither the fitness nor the money to do it. Also, whenever I hear “Mendoza” I do this; which I’m sure would go down really well in Argentina.

It’s definitely a trip to put on the list for the future though.

 

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