Aconcagua: An Introduction to the Normal Route

Aconcagua is the perfect high altitude mountain for all sorts of shenanigans, because it has something for everyone: the South Face is among the biggest walls in the world, with some 9000ft of highly technical climbing; the Polish Glacier on the east side of the mountain offers a moderate technical option.  And then there's the Normal Route leading up the northwest ridge. 

The Normal Route is mostly a walkup; there are no glaciers or major cliff bands that could pose serious objective hazards. It is also the most popular way up the mountain; Plaza de Mulas at its foot is rumored to be the second largest basecamp in the world, and from there a well-worn track leads most of the way to the summit.  Now... that's not to say that getting up the mountain via the Normal Route is easy.  No matter how non-technical it may be, the route still gains almost 4000 meters / 13,000ft from the park entrance to the summit. It is long, it is steep, and the conditions above basecamp are often brutal.   

Aerial view of the Horcones Valley Route - courtesy Sunny Stroeer

How long and steep, you ask?  Great question - it’s not that simple.  Interviews with Fernanda Maciel, the original women's speed record holder, suggest that the entire route is somewhere between 40 and 45 kilometers in length one way.  Kilian Jornet, who briefly held the men's  speed record in 2014, recorded a distance of 59.85km for the roundtrip or just under 30km one way.  My (Sunny’s) own GPS data from a 2014 climb comes in at right around 34kms one way.  

Normal Route Elevation Profile - courtesy Sunny Stroeer

So much for the distance question. But how steep? This one is easier to answer: at first not very steep at all; then, very steep. The approach to basecamp follows the Horcones Valley which ascends so gradually that it is almost imperceptible for a good portion of the hike.  But the story changes drastically after Plaza de Mulas: the final 10 kilometers from basecamp to the summit cover almost 2,700m of elevation gain, translating into an average gradient of 26-27%.  

There are five main camps in between the park entrance and the summit.  The first two, Confluencia and Plaza de Mulas, offer relative luxury thanks to local logistics providers: Inka Expediciones and a few others maintain semi-permanent tents to provide meals and bunk beds for their clients.  In addition, there is ample mule traffic all the way up to Plaza de Mulas which makes it easy to move loads up to basecamp. Once past Plaza de Mulas everything gets harder: the air is thinner, the temperatures colder, the comfortable logistics support a distant memory (unless you’re hiring expensive porters to help carry gear as high as Nido de Condores).   Put all those factors together with the increased steepness, and you’ll easily see why the 25km to Plaza de Mulas is typically done in only three days, while it’s then another ~ ten days to cover the remaining 10 kilometers from Plaza de Mulas to the summit.  

A map of the upper mountain, via

Aconcagua via the Normal Route is not much of a technical challenge, but (or maybe "because of that") it makes for an excellent introduction to high altitude mountaineering; the Normal Route also lends itself to comparatively safe solo missions.  Hopefully these maps are useful for you as you’re following along friends on the mountain or if you are researching your own Aconcagua climb. 

Lots of time for acclimatization and flexibility from 4000 meters on upwards. AWExpedition climbs often build in an additional overnight at ~3.000m right at the beginning of the trip, before heading into the park.

On that same note here is one last resource: a sample mountain itinerary for a typical AWExpeditions Normal Route climb, this one pulled from a 2017 expedition. The actual schedule in any given year is of course dependent on weather and team condition, but this straw-man is a decent blueprint of how to tackle a 7000 meter peak with solid acclimatization. 

These maps and schedules should give you a good starting to point to plan your own Aconcagua climb - or, if you’d rather tackle the summit with a team and have all your logistics taken care of: get in touch with us!

This article originally appeared in modified form over on AWE founder Sunny Stroeer’s website You can find the original version at

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Upcoming AWE climbs

  • Aconcagua Normal Route
    Jan & Dec 2020 (three weeks)

  • Aconcagua 360 Route
    Feb 2020 & Jan 2021 (three weeks)

  • Nepal Island Peak via Everest Basecamp
    October 2019 (three weeks)

  • Kilimanjaro
    September 2020 (11 days)

Find out more and join us here.

Think You've Got What It Takes? Or: How To Get Ready For Aconcagua

A shakeout run with Aconcagua standing proud and tall in the background

Aconcagua is the second highest of the Seven Summits, and at 22,838ft it is a formidable peak. Even if you choose the easiest way up the mountain, you are looking at a one way trip of ~35km / 22 miles with 4000 meters (13,120ft) of ascent. The typical climber takes about two weeks to get to the summit, allowing time to both acclimatize and to wait for the somewhat elusive weather window.  

OK - if you do the math it doesn't sound that bad, does it? Two weeks for 22 miles and 13,000 feet elevation gain should translate to an average of just a little under 2 miles and 1,000ft of ascent each day.  Of course it's not that easy: there are acclimatization days and load carries which mean that, once above basecamp, you essentially have to climb every bit up to high camp at least twice.  And most of the action happens above 14,000ft ASL where the air is thin and every step is a battle.  

So how do you prepare for a climb like this?  Here's what AWE founder Sunny Stroeer has to say to Aconcagua hopefuls:

‘The better your cardio base is, the better your chances of acclimatizing and making it all the way to the summit.  A huge part of the battle is mental, but you have to be working off an incredibly strong cardio base to even be in position to fight that mental battle. What I mean by that: being in marathon shape is a great benchmark; short of actually running a marathon, you ought to be able to knock out a twenty mile run/walk over the course of 5-7 hours without feeling like you’ve got nothing left in the tank at the end of it.’

One of the biggest challenges on Aconcagua is both the duration of the climb and the lack of opportunities to truly recovery. Even the approach to basecamp isn’t a walk in the park - the longest approach day on the normal route is a 12 mile hike with significant vertical gain right towards the end of the day - but it’s still quite manageable for most fit hikers. Once above basecamp, though, every day is difficult; rest days lack the creature comforts of basecamp. And as if that’s not enough, a string of difficult days is then capped off by what may just be one of the hardest physical efforts you’ve ever undertaken: summit day.

Working hard at 22,000ft

That’s why, in addition to an excellent cardio base, the ability to suffer is key.  Climbing at altitude and in the extreme cold that characterizes Aconcagua means that there will be plenty of suffering, even under the most favorable conditions; the outcome of the climb depends majorly both on your physical preparation and on how badly you want it (while respecting physical limits and objective hazards, of course). 

If you are not already an ultra endurance athlete with a first-hand idea of what this suffering talk is all about, here’s a good way to get a first-hand taste: overnight training sessions. Start at dusk and hike all night until the sun comes up again; ideally up a local hill or mountain, and carrying weight.  When a 12 hour overnight hike doesn't faze you anymore, chances are you'd handle the physical demands of Aconcagua just fine. 

You are still reading and all of this sounds appealing rather than exhausting? Maybe you should come climbing with us.

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Upcoming AWE climbs

  • Aconcagua Normal Route
    Jan & Dec 2020 (three weeks)

  • Aconcagua 360 Route
    Feb 2020 & Jan 2021 (three weeks)

  • Nepal Island Peak via Everest Basecamp
    October 2019 (three weeks)

  • Kilimanjaro
    September 2020 (11 days)

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Beyond the Summit

Why do we climb? It’s a complicated question, and one that invites unsatisfying answers. George Mallory’s famous response to the question of why he wanted to climb Everest (“Because it’s there!”) is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg; pardon the pun.

Pursuing high altitude peaks in a country like Nepal is a deep reflection of personal desires and values. Looking beyond the physical and mental challenge of attempting a big summit, the irony of seeking out mountaineering objectives is not lost on the introspective climber: what a manifestation of privilege it is to put tremendous resources towards a summit goal that entails not only deliberately pushing into difficult environments but also means voluntarily embracing hardships which the majority of the local population is working hard to avoid.


That’s why expedition mountaineering is about so much more than about the mountain or the summit. It’s about refining our understanding of what matters in life - both in our own and in the lives of others - and growing as a person in the face of constant consequential choices and reality checks. It’s the reason why some of the best experiences on a mountaineering expedition may have nothing to do with climbing.

Read on below for a LuminAid story from AWE founder Sunny Stroeer’s most recent visit to Nepal, where Sunny talks about precisely one of those experiences.

Notes From The Field: Mera Peak Nepal

Even among the highest peaks, a LuminAID ambassador finds a way to share light. This story comes from mountain-climber Sunny, who recently embarked on an all-female climb in the Himalaya. On the way, her team was able to distribute safe solar lights to families in high remote mountain villages, with fire stoves as their only light source.

Here at AWE we’re about climbing mountains and enabling extraordinary experiences, but hopefully the above story helps shed light on why we also believe that summits are just a tiny piece of the puzzle: what’s much more important than reaching one is how you get there, and the personal connections you make a long the way!

Visit Nepal with AWE

Sunny Stroeer
Kilimanjaro: A Mother-Daughter Trip

What’s the biggest adventure you’ve ever gone on with your family? How about a climb up to the roof of Africa! Take a look below to read AWE founder Sunny Stroeer’s account of an unforgettable summit push on Kilimanjaro over at the REI Co-op Journal.

The Mother-Daughter Bond at Elevation | REI Co-op Journal

A lot of parents worry about their children's safety on epic alpine adventures. Gudrun Stroeer used to be one of them. But now, she's summiting peaks alongside her daughter Sunny. It is 3:30 in the morning and my mom, Gudrun Stroeer (65), is doubled over and breathing hard.

Looking for your own big mountain adventure? Come climbing with us!

Now taking bookings for…

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Meet the 2019 AWE x Nite Ize Summit Scholarship Recipient

If you’ve been following our Summit Scholarship updates on social media over the last month, you already know this much: the response to the $5000 free-ride-to-Nepal scholarship surpassed all expectations. 236 women from more than twenty countries applied, and the scholarship steering committee faced the difficult task of choosing just one recipient among hundreds of women with powerful stories and a demonstrated love for the outdoors.

The intent of the scholarship is to open up the empowering adventure of big mountain expedition climbing to a woman who typically would not be in a position to embark on such a climb without the scholarship’s assistance. As such, we were looking for candidates with a powerful story who demonstrate a credible financial need in addition to alignment with AWE’s mission and values. Ideally, we also wanted the scholarship recipient to be someone for whom the expedition would be a truly extra-ordinary experience: someone who hadn’t been to the Himalayas before, who hadn’t yet climbed big mountains such as Kilimanjaro or Cotopaxi, who hadn’t (yet) been able to pursue life-changing bucket list adventures around the globe.

We found our perfect candidate in Colorado’s Melissa Estep, who describes her evolution in the outdoors as follows:

Melissa (Photo Credit: Melissa Estep collection / Instagram)

Melissa (Photo Credit: Melissa Estep collection / Instagram)

“Through college, I had felt tied to my relationships with men to get out and climb or challenge myself. I think there are great things to be gained from sharing these experiences with men, but I felt too dependent to pursue them alone and consequently felt limited in what I could do. When I was told I couldn’t join a trip to Mt. Baker with male friends due to concerns over my abilities and emotional capacity for handling the situation, I decided I would do whatever it took to feel competent on my own. Climbing mountains is an incredibly empowering experience, and the opportunity to join other strong women makes it even more rewarding.”

Melissa embodies why AWE was created, and we are incredibly excited to have her join the expedition team for our upcoming Island Peak climb & Everest Basecamp trek as the recipient of the 2019 AWE x Nite Ize Summit Scholarship which will cover her expedition fee, a $500 stipend towards international air travel, and top-of-the-line trail and high altitude mountaineering footwear from LOWA Boots.

Welcome to the team, Melissa!! We can’t wait to share the trails of the Khumbu Valley with you and hopefully snatch a sunrise or two from high up on Island Peak, too.

Note: The quality of quantity of scholarship applications drives home the need for programs like this one, and we’re hoping to build a larger scale scholarship effort in future years. If you’d like to get involved as an individual or corporate partner or help in building this program, please contact us.

Sunny Stroeer
Announcing the $5,000 AWE x NITE IZE Summit Scholarship

Expedition climbing isn’t cheap: between mountaineering gear, airfare and on the ground logistics, big mountain expeditions tend to run in the thousands of dollars. That’s why we are  proud to announce the 2019 AWE x Nite Ize Summit Scholarship for one woman to participate in our fall 2019 expedition to Island Peak and Everest Basecamp at minimal cost, powered by Nite Ize and supported by Lowa Boots

We at AWExpeditions believe in creating empowering experiences for women, and in contributing what we can towards closing the gender gap one step at a time. We realize, though, that all too often these empowering experiences carry a steep price tag and are a domain of privilege. So we’ve teamed up with the good folks at Nite Ize, who are all about adventure and solutions, to do do something about it.  

The Summit Scholarship will cover one selected woman’s complete expedition fee ($3,190) and a $500 stipend for use towards international flights to/from Kathmandu. The scholarship also includes expedition-relevant gear from Nite Ize, and top quality mountaineering footwear from Lowa Boots valued at more than $1300.  The expedition will take place from October 5 to October 26 2019.

Qualified applicants must be female, available to travel to Nepal in October 2019, and enthusiastic about challenging themselves physically and mentally in a harsh outdoor environment.  Excellent cardio shape is a must, prior mountaineering experience is not mandatory. 

Applications can be submitted at between April 4 and May 1 2019.  The scholarship recipient will be announced by May 15 2019. 

Questions? Get in touch.

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Find out more and join us here.

Sunny Stroeer
The Lady Aconcagua

Karin, a member of the 2019 AWExAconcagua team, above the Cueva.

It’s mid-morning on Feb 18th. I’m alone at 22,410 feet huddled in the “Cueva,” a rather poor excuse for a cave that provides almost no protection from the relentless, biting wind. I take shelter behind a rock and hunch in on myself trying to preserve body heat while I attend to my hands. My poor frozen endlessly painful hands. By far the most painful and difficult part of climbing  Aconcagua was keeping my hands warm. I pull them out of my gloves and shove them into my armpits and try not to cry as the numbness fades into a burning searing pain.

“The pain is good- it means blood flow and circulation.”

The pain is good- it means blood flow and circulation. I wait for several minutes and look out at the vista of peaks bathed in the sunlight. The sun has risen hours ago but I am on the shadowed side of the mountain and will remain without the warmth of the sun until I reach the summit. I can see it from here- so tantalizing. So close but still a couple hours of hard effort away. I wait as long as I can for my hands to warm up and then when my core temperature drops enough to make hypothermia a real possibility, I pull my hands out, shove my gloves on, and grab my pack. Time to get moving. 

“I haven’t felt my feet in several hours, my hands are still only marginally functional, I’m alone and windblown…. and ecstatic.”

A couple hours later I am on the summit. I haven’t felt my feet in several hours, my hands are still only marginally functional, I’m alone and windblown…. and ecstatic. There is something about that summit feeling- there is nothing else like it on earth. Similar to the finish line of any grueling race or athletic event- you’re tired and proud and accomplished. And something more…. There is something humbling about being among the big mountains. If I finish a triathlon, I know it’s because I worked hard. If I make it to the top of Aconcagua, I know that it is because she granted me passage. I see why native peoples deify the mountains- they are so grand, so monumental in comparison to us. At any moment I could have been turned back by weather, or altitude, or injury. An environment so harsh I could never belong here- but I am allowed to visit. And on our summit day the lady Aconcagua deigned to let us reach her heights.

“Temperature, thirst, hunger, must all be managed with precision.”

The author enjoying a day of glorious weather not far above basecamp

People ask me which is harder- running a 100 mile race or climbing a mountain? It’s a hard question to answer. Much is the same- the grueling nature of each endeavor, the physical and mental endurance required. In some ways racing is much harder. Even in long races you feel the grind of continuous effort and the pain of perceived exertion in a way I did not feel at Aconcagua. The physical efforts are necessarily measured due to the extreme altitude. Each day on the mountain was only a few hours of hard effort followed by a generous amount of rest. But even just trying to exist in such extreme environments is hard. The wind never stops blowing. Blizzards may come in at Camp 1 and you must set up your tents in 80 mph winds and blowing snow (true story). You’re cold ALL the time. Temperature, thirst, hunger, must all be managed with precision. It’s often, or maybe even mostly, an uncomfortable experience. But it is also transcendent, and inspiring, and beautiful in a way that makes you feel very small. And that is feeling worth chasing.

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“Deep questions are best pondered under miserable circumstances.”

OK, maybe that title is a bit misleading.  While any Aconcagua climb comes with aspects that belong squarely into the Type II Fun category (Type II = “fun in retrospect”), it feels like team Las Princessas de la Montaña got to experience a fantastic mix of actual fun interspersed with the inevitable moments of self-selected misery.  But what a whirlwind - literally and figuratively! 

L-R: Tara, Kristin and Karin; Aconcagua is shrouded in clouds in the background

L-R: Tara, Kristin and Karin; Aconcagua is shrouded in clouds in the background

The 2019 AWExAconcagua expedition concluded just about 24 hours ago; at the time of writing, most of the princessas are somewhere above the clouds en route to their respective homes. 

Ice cold, dirty glacier run-off? Just what the doctor ordered!

Ice cold, dirty glacier run-off? Just what the doctor ordered!

Our trip was one for the ages: from sunburns and river-ice-bath provoking temperatures in the lower valley to frostbite inducing blizzards with 80 mile per hour winds right above basecamp, we had it all.

Kristen, Karin, Tara and I (Sunny) assembled in Mendoza on the first weekend in February to tackle Aconcagua’s 360 route, which is both an ascent as well as a circumnavigation of the mountain.  The 360 is special in that it is longer, less traveled, and a bit spicier than Aconcagua’s normal route: not only does it involve mandatory river crossings, but every team member also has to at the very least reach Camp III at 19,600ft which is the eye of the needle that enables a successful circumnavigation of the mountain. 

We all started the trip strong and healthy - at least aside from the occasional light bout of travelers diarrhea - and made quick work of the 25 mile approach that leads to Plaza Argentina.  “Quick work” in mountain-speak, of course, means three days: acclimatization cannot be rushed. 

Once at basecamp we quickly made friends with the wonderful staff of our local logistics support Inka Expediciones, to whom we also owe this year’s team name: Las Princessas de la Montaña.  We may not have felt like princesses after several hot and dusty days without showers, but we certainly were treated like royalty.  Thank you Colo & team.  

Basecamp Plaza Argentina

Basecamp Plaza Argentina

After a few days of rest and preparation at basecamp, Aconcagua welcomed us with all her glorious fierceness: we moved to Camp I in what was predicted to be semi-windy and dry weather, only to find ourselves setting up camp in a gale force blizzard that dumped about a foot of snow on us and shredded several tents - not ours thankfully, they all belonged to other teams.

Camp I after the storm

Camp I after the storm

We spent 36 hours waiting out the storm, and from there on out our climb resumed at a more standard pace, and precisely a week after leaving basecamp we were in position at Camp III to launch our summit bid.  

Another team coming up below us on summit day

Another team coming up below us on summit day

Summit morning was brutally cold under starry skies. The wind, while nowhere near as strong as it had been lower down on the mountain, was still at times formidable (the forecast predicted wind speeds up to 50 kilometers for our chosen summit day) and cold exposure was a serious concern through the early hours of the climb.  At one point, Kristin’s feet had gotten so cold and numb that we stopped for over an hour just after sunrise to rewarm her toes to not risk a recurrence of the frostbite that she had suffered on a prior trip in Nepal. 

Thankfully conditions improved over the course of the day, and at 3:30pm on February 18 Kristin stood on the summit of the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas! Tara, ever the high-altitude speedster, had already successfully made her way to the summit some four hours earlier; Karin and I pushed halfway up the Canaletta (the crux of the ascent at 22,000ft) and into spitting distance of the summit before deciding to not force the top on account of Karin’s nausea and dizziness that was increasing with altitude. We all returned to high camp safely before 6:30pm where Tara was already waiting with a hot brew, and quickly settled back into our tents to sleep the sleep of exhaustion. 

Congratulations on your hard work and excellent climbs Kristin & Karin & Tara!! 

Take a look below for some more favorite moments from the trip - and if you or someone you know would like to join a future AWE expedition… get in touch

Many thanks to our partners and supporters Nite Ize, Backpacker’s Pantry, Buff USA & Sierra Designs

Sunny StroeerComment
Update from 4,200m: Plaza Argentina

We’ve made it to basecamp!

Tara, Karin and Kristen on the approach to basecamp; Aconcagua in the back

After three days and 25 miles of walking (with five thousand feet of ascent and two river crossings!) we have arrived in Plaza Argentina.  Compared to the approach camps, Plaza Argentina is palatial: we have our own dinner dome as well as a dormitory tent with bunk beds to sleep in; showers and wifi are available though pricey: $25 for an hour of online access.  Which is just as well, since we’re here to enjoy the mountain and savor that off-grid time. 

Karin and Tara on the way to basecamp

The team is doing very well: aside from the occasional mild headaches and nausea everyone is acclimatizing well, and moving along strong.  We’ve had terrific weather on the way in, though that translated into a few very hot and exposed days down in the valley - hot enough to happily soak in a glacier-fed river near Casa Piedras (the second approach camp).  

Frigid early morning conditions: crossing the very same river that provided a welcome cool-down the prior afternoon

At this point we’re all looking forward to a rest day at Plaza Argentina, and are putting all our effort into being strong and healthy for the upper mountain.  Keep an eye out for updates on the GPS at to monitor our daily progress and send us messages; aside from that, you likely won’t hear from us again until we descend to basecamp on the other side - which should happen just about two weeks from now, on or near Wednesday February 20. At that point, we’ll be able to share an update on Instagram and will be looking forward to being back in town with proper connectivity around February 22.

Happy trails!

Sunny Stroeer
How to Have a Good Time (and Make Great Friends!) on a High Altitude Expedition

Hi there! While this year’s AWExAconcagua360 team is assembling in Mendoza to head out onto the mountain on Tuesday, take a read through this article that AWE’s Sunny Stroeer wrote after returning from her inaugural all-women’s climb on Aconcagua in 2017.

The 2016 team at the start of the expedition. L-R: Kristina Kurcinka, Teresa Weygandt, Libby Sauter, Sunny Stroeer

What happens when you take four women, who don’t really know one another, and throw them into a three-week trip to attempt the highest peak in the Western and Southern hemisphere?  

Aconcagua, the second highest of the Seven Summits, stands 22,838ft tall.  Some 3,000-4,000 people attempt the summit each year, and the normal route is little more than a high-altitude hike. There’s a well-beaten path almost all the way to the summit.  Yet the mountain is physically extremely demanding and subject to ferocious weather. Storms with wind speeds of 80mph+ and temperatures down to -40F are not unusual.  Summit day can be a grueling ordeal, with 12+ hours of difficult, oxygen-starved forward progress. But Aconcagua’s non-technical nature and high popularity contribute to making it one of the most-underestimated mountains out there: during the few weeks that we spent on the mountain this season, there were two deaths and at least five near-misses where folks were lucky to walk away with their lives - which, according to rangers and locals on the mountain, was representative of the incident rates of a typical season.

The Horcones valley approach to basecamp: 15 non-technical, arid miles

What is it that creates this dichotomy - a seemingly easy mountain yet lots of calamities - and equally as important, are there guidelines to follow that can help manage risk and make a big mountain trip as enjoyable as possible? I have to preface what’s coming next with the disclaimer that none of our women’s team reached the summit on this go-around (though I have summited twice in the past, once while setting a new women’s speed record from basecamp Plaza de Mulas to the summit). That said, here are the five tenets that I find to be quintessential for high altitude mountaineering. 

  • #1: Healthy team norms are the foundation of a fun and supportive trip.  We were a team of four strong women, all with their own set of legitimate backcountry experiences and skills: there was Libby Sauter, the Yosemite big-wall rockstar who holds the female speed record on the Nose; Teresa, a rocket-scientist-turned-ski-bum whose spunk knows no limits; Kristina, a wicked strong and wicked funny ultra-running and ski-mountaineering weekend warrior queen; and myself, who had already climbed Aconcagua once two years prior, joining a group of very few women to succeed on the mountain solo and unsupported.
    We had assembled a team of type-A personalities, and it’s easy to imagine how we could have slipped into intra-team competitiveness. Instead, Kristina prompted an important conversation early on during the approach hike to basecamp: “How do you act when you’re not feeling good?  What happens when you’re down?  When things are going downhill, what can the rest of us do to make sure that you’re ok?”  That conversation set us up as a team to be open about our concerns and to support one another; it set the stage for candid discussions and smart, participative decision-making. 

Libby and Kristina during an early acclimatization hike

  • #2: Acclimatization cannot be rushed.  The mountain does not care about your schedule.  We knew that we would need about about ten days of acclimatization before being ready to try the summit. Looking at the forecast, we were tempted to rush into a faster summit attempt: tagging the summit on a mountain like Aconcagua depends on favorable weather conditions as high winds and extremely cold temperatures make it near impossible to climb during periods of bad weather. Now a razor-thin two-day weather window offered summit chances amid otherwise stormy and cold conditions that would close off the upper mountain.  We knew that this particular weather window was early for our acclimatization schedule, but we had no way of knowing if we’d get another window if we decided to sit this one out. “Let’s just go for it! We’re in position. What do we have to lose?” - “There’s no way, we’re not well-enough acclimatized; we could get ourselves in serious trouble if we push too hard too soon.” Team consensus on the viability of an early summit push flip-flopped like a fish caught in a bucket.  In the end, we had to admit to ourselves that none of us four were well-enough acclimatized yet where an early summit bid was realistic; we beat retreat from Camp II down to basecamp and sat out the approaching bad weather, hoping for another window before we would have to return to the US. 

Up is optional, down is mandatory. Libby and Teresa carrying loads above basecamp.

  • #3: Sleep is critical.  Sleep is the body’s mechanism to recover.  If you’re not sleeping well, you’re bound to acclimatize more slowly and take longer to get your strength back after humping a heavy backpack several thousand feet up the mountain to establish your next camp.  A single night of poor sleep can set you back massively - like the one time at Camp I when I was sitting up most of the night and supporting the tent wall with my back because the wind gusts were so strong that I was scared the poles on my TNF Assault tent were going to snap (which they finally did, though thankfully not until the last morning at high camp several days later…).  Aside from avoiding wind storms, there are several factors that can help you sleep well on a mountain: 

    • Choose your tent spot carefully: there’s nothing worse than constantly sliding off your sleeping pad - and potentially into your increasingly grouchy tent mate - because the ground isn’t flat.

    • Have a sleep setup that allows you to be comfortable among the prevailing conditions.  Aconcagua gets crazy cold (-40F windchill on the summit is not atypical), so our team was equipped with -20F sleeping bags and we each brought a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir + Z-Rest sleeping pad combo to ensure we would stay warm at night. 

    • Avoid alcohol and caffeine - just as you would if you’re worried about your sleep quality at lower elevations.  Altitude and cold exacerbate the negative consequences of diuretic substances, so this is even more important while you’re high on the mountain. 

Aconcagua at night

Aconcagua at night

  • #4: Nutrition makes all the difference.  The amount of calories that you need to function at a high level amid brutal cold and thin air is mind blowing; during my first Aconcagua summit day in 2014 I burned an estimated 8,000 calories over the course of eighteen hours. I also lost 16 pounds in 16 days during that trip, and not on purpose! But that’s a different story. 
    Staying fueled is complicated; most people’s appetite tends to decrease with altitude, and cooking food in a tent is a hassle. As such, it’s important to have a good system: 

    • Start with a foundation of nutrient-dense and easy-to-pack freeze dried meals - Backpackers’ Pantry are my favorite - as well as caloric snacks such as bars, gels and trail mix for during the day, since lunches tend to happen on the go. 

    • Then add variety and a host of different treats - chocolate, salty snacks, comfort foods - to keep food stoke high.  

    • Bring sugar and olive oil to add calories to just about anything.  If you manage to do all of that and eat up everything you brought, you’ll likely still have lost 5 to 7 pounds at the end of two+ weeks at high altitude. 

Almost 9000 calories burned during a single monster summit day from Camp II

  • #5: There is no substitute for deliberate decision making.  Because in the end, reaching the summit does not mean success; it’s all about getting home safely.  In fact, reaching the summit by a thread and barely making it back down is a much less desirable outcome than it is to turn around and abandon a summit bid based on robust, systematic decision-making.  After all, if your decision-making isn’t systematic and deliberate, how will you differentiate if you got down off the mountain due to skill or merely due to luck?
    Situational awareness is core and center to deliberate decision-making in the mountains - you have to be constantly assessing your environment as well as the physical and mental state that you and your teammates are in, and you have to be willing to adjust plans to match new information as it becomes available (such as an updated weather forecast or a teammate’s changing health).  The summit is not the ultimate goal - don’t succumb to the temptation to treat it as such.

During our women’s expedition, we had to make a series of difficult calls including a weather window which we passed up and unplanned sick days at basecamp.  We finally abandoned the climb altogether, and yet we all walked away from the trip with the feeling of having accomplished something big. Three weeks of cold, altitude, sickness, hard work and no summits brought us much closer together than I think any of us had expected going into the trip. We supported each other through our ups and downs, picked up each other’s slack, stayed safe, and most importantly had lots of fun through most, if not all, of it. We may not have reached the summit, but we sure had great fun and made great friends.   

The team at 16,000ft. Live to climb another day!

An edit of this article was originally over on the Therm-a-Rest blog in 2017.

Sunny StroeerComment