If you take an interest in high altitude mountaineering and peak-bagging chances are that you are well familiar with the Seven Summits and that you even know where to find (and how to pronounce, ha!) 22,838ft Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalaya. But as far as route choices on Aconcagua go… what exactly are the major routes and how are they different?
Read on to find out, and to learn more about the 360 Route.
Major Routes on Aconcagua
The Normal Route
This is by far the most popular way to climb Aconcagua as it is non-technical with well-established infrastructure and lots of traffic. It is an out-and-back route through the Horcones Valley with a total distance of ~42 miles (roundtrip) and 16,000ft of ascent. If you’re curious about maps, stats and tactics for the Normal Route you can find lots of detail over at AWE founder Sunny Stroeer’s personal page in this article.
The Polish Glacier (Direct) Route
The Direct is a technical route with sections of 55-60 degree ice climbing on the north side of Aconcagua. To climb it safely you need to be solid with crampons, ice tools, running belays and basic crevasse rescue techniques. This route does get climbed regularly but sees nowhere near the traffic of the Normal or the 360 Route; there is also a way to start up the Polish Glacier but later traverse towards the west to avoid the most difficult section of the Direct; this is called the False Polish Glacier or Polish Glacier Traverse route.
The South Face
The South Face is the mother of alpine big walls in Latin America and has multiple routes on it, all of which are rarely repeated as they require expert technical skills and the acceptance of a high level of objective risk.
The 360 Route
The 360 route is equally non-technical as the Normal Route but combines a circumnavigation of the mountain with the summit, whereas the Normal Route is an out-and-back. It is longer, more scenic and less frequented than the Normal Route (though still quite popular).
Details about the 360 Route
Take a look below to get oriented on the mountain. The 360 route starts in the southeast corner of the map in Punta de Vacas and follows the long and remote Vacas Valley past two approach camps before turning west towards Plaza Argentina, which serves as basecamp on the Vacas side. From Plaza Argentina, the 360 Route continues west until joining the Normal Route at Camp III (Camp Colera, 19,900ft). From here, the summit is a “short” (2 miles one-way) but brutal out and back which takes most expedition climbers ~8-10 hours to complete. After tagging the summit, the 360 Route merges with the Normal Route as teams descend the northwest slopes of the mountain to Plaza de Mulas, the Normal Route’s basecamp, before following the Horcones valley back out towards the road.
Just like the Normal Route, the 360 doesn’t require any technical expertise other than owning and understanding how to use an ice axe and crampons. In some years there may not even be enough snow on the upper mountain to warrant crampons, but most of the time there are at least a few stretches of semi-permanent snowfields that freeze over and can produce dangerous consequences without the appropriate gear.
So if the route is non-technical, is it even hard? Well… YES. The most common mistake that Aconcagua first-timers are susceptible to is to underestimate the mountain due to its seemingly gentle topography along the standard routes. While the climbing isn’t technically challenging, the conditions and altitude on the White Sentry are extreme and much more difficult than Kilimanjaro, which many Aconcagua hopefuls have climbed and can use as their reference point. Here at AWE we like to compare summit day on Kilimanjaro with a regular day on the upper mountain on Aconcagua: most climbers end up finding each day above basecamp to be incredibly difficult and tiring, and summit day blows everything else out of the water. Take a look at the daily mileage and vert chart to get an idea - but keep in mind that acclimatization and gear management above basecamp require double carries from camp to camp, meaning each climber has to climb each section twice on consecutive days.
If you’re still not scared of by the amount of effort that an Aconcagua expedition entails, the typical next question is this: which route is better, Normal or the 360? There are tradeoffs. If you are looking for the fastest, safest, best supported way of climbing the mountain - the Normal Route is your ticket. Climbing permits for the Normal Route are cheaper than for the 360, mules to carry your gear to and from basecamp cost less, and there are two semi-permanent camps (Confluencia and Plaza de Mulas) that can easily translate into a fairly luxurious setup during your way to basecamp.
If you’re still not scared of by the amount of effort that an Aconcagua expedition entails, the typical next question is this: which route is better, Normal or the 360?
If you are looking for the longer, less traveled and more scenic version - you’ll want to climb the 360 Route. The Vacas Valley on the 360 is a bit more diverse and visually appealing than the Normal Route’s Horcones Valley, but there are no permanent facilities at the two approach camps low down and since the distances from the road to basecamp are longer, everything (mules, permits, food) costs more.
That said - both routes are terrific choices, and Aconcagua is a must-do mountain on any peak-bagger’s bucket list!