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.
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.
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.
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.
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 www.sunnystroeer.com. You can find the original version at https://www.awexpeditions.org/field-notes/aconcagua-normal-route-description.