Posts tagged Mountaineering
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)

Find out more and join us here.

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.


Upcoming AWE climbs

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Find out more and join us here.