At 22,841 feet, Aconcagua is not only the highest mountain in South America but also the highest in the Western Hemisphere. Most climbers climb it via the Normal Route, or as I prefer to call it, "The Freeway Route." It is quite literally a trail that ascends the northwest side of the mountain, attempted by at least a thousand climbers each season. Dogs have been taken to the summit and motorcycles have been ridden as high as 21,653 feet via this route (ugh!). It is the easiest route to the summit, and this is important to some.
But the northeast side of Aconcagua features the aesthetic Polish Glacier, first climbed by a party from Poland in 1934. The crowds are absent on this side of the mountain and the three-day approach up the Rio de Vacas is a wilderness experience. Above base camp, one must cross some tedious scree fields and climb around exhausting penitentes to reach the foot of the glacier, where the real climbing begins. The climbing is technically moderate, certainly within the ability of most novice snow and ice climbers. The easiest route on the Polish Glacier itself ascends the left side to the east ridge of Aconcagua, and traversing this ridge to the top is like being on the summit all day.
After obtaining your climbing permit and making arrangements for mules in the charming city of Mendoza, Argentina, take the local bus to Punta de Vacas. Hike up the west side of the Rio de las Vacas to the La Leña shelter, where the swift and deep river is crossed. Continue hiking up the Rio de las Vacas to the Casa de Piedra shelter, directly opposite the steep and narrow Relinchos Valley. Cross the river again and hike up the Relinchos Valley to Plaza Argentina, the base camp, located approximately 21 miles from Punta de Vacas.
Follow a rough trail northwest from Plaza Argentina, passing some high cliffs on the left with a field of nieve penitentes on the right. Climb through the penitentes to a flat area, the site of Camp 1. Continue climbing up the slope to the left that leads to the base of the Polish Glacier itself, the usual location of Camp 2. Make a diagonal ascending traverse up the left side of the glacier, keeping to the right of the Piedra Bandera, a prominent landmark. Continue climbing up the left side of the glacier to the crest of the east ridge of Aconcagua, and follow the ridge (with too many false summits) to the apex of the Americas.
Permits: Each individual climber must obtain his or her climbing permit in person at the Subsecretaria de Turismo in downtown Mendoza at San Martin 1143. Fees range from US$5.00 in the austal winter (March to November), to US$200 in the high season, December 15 to January 1. The permit is valid for twenty days after entering the park.
Special Considerations: Almost all parties attempting Aconcagua use the services of muleteers to facilitate the approach to the mountain.
Guidebook:Aconcagua: A Climbing Guide, Second Edition, by R.J. Secor. The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1999, $16.95.
Contacts: Aconcagua Provincial Park, www.aconcagua.net (in English, Spanish, German, French, and Portuguese); Mount Aconcagua?Unofficial Home Page, www.mt-aconcagua.com (in Spanish only); Aconcagua: The Professional Site, www.aconcagua.com (in English, Spanish, and Italian).