The Physical Effort
limbing Aconcagua entails a large expenditure of human energy. The net elevation gain from the Horcones Valley entrance is roughly 13,500 feet. This value is, coincidentally, virtually identical with the net gain on both Kilimanjaro and Mount McKinley when these continental highpoints are climbed via their respective most popular routes.
In this section I frequently refer to these other continental highpoints as many Aconcagua ascensionists will, at some point in their climbing careers, contemplate these summits as well.
It is unusual to find mountains requiring more than two vertical miles of elevation gain by their standard climbing routes - and yet all three of these summits meet this criterion.
Noting these observations, I suggest that we begin the ascent from a slightly lower starting point - so making for what I posit will be the largest net elevation gain for any mountain I will likely ever climb. Thus on Day 1 Edward, Robert, and I descend east along railroad tracks from Puente del Inca, eventually turning right (downhill) to enter the local river gully. We reach a point at least 110 vertical feet below Puente del Inca - 8,841 feet - and use that nondescript clump of grass as the starting elevation of our Aconcagua quest.
In so doing we secure a net elevation gain of 14,000 feet.1 In metric units this choice of elevation gain is clearly not meaningful. Indeed, a 4,000+ meter elevation gain is achieved by simply starting at the park entrance.
Owing to double carries; our hike to and from the Base Camp hotel; and undulating terrain along the Ruta Normal below Base Camp on the first two days, our total elevation gain for climbing Aconcagua is 19,100 vertical feet.
View of the Aconcagua skyline at Lower Condores,
from just above Nido de Condores (18,000 feet)
at far left; to just below the 21,000+ foot traverse
beyond the Independencia hut.
The White Rocks (roughly 20,000 feet)
are at skyline center.
The distance from the Horcones Valley park entrance to the summit is listed as 44 kilometers and a fractional value in the park registration office. Assuming a figure of 44.5 kilometers, multiplication by two yields a round-trip distance of 89 kilometers - some 55 statute miles.
The distance from Puente del Inca to the cited park entrance is 4 kilometers - some 2.5 miles. Addition of an estimated 0.5 mile from the river gully to Puente del Inca suggests that our singularly peculiar route is 3 miles longer than the cited round-trip distance, i.e. 58 miles. Note that on descent we did not hike to Puente del Inca - only to the park entrance. Hence the 3 mile figure is not doubled in computing our total hiking distance.
The above distances do not include additional mileage incurred by performing double carries.
With a minimum round-trip distance of 55 miles, the Ruta Normal is longer than nearly any climb of a single mountain you are likely to perform. For American climbers the following comparisons are noted -
This round-trip distance is greater than the West Buttress route on Mount McKinley (one-way: 16 to 18 miles); and is even greater than the round-trip distance for climbing Gannett Peak in Wyoming (34 or 44 or 50 miles, depending on the route chosen).
Despite these challenging statistics, the overall level of effort to climb Mount McKinley is greater than for Aconcagua by their respective most popular routes. On Mount McKinley double carries, heavier loads, and roped glacier travel add markedly to the energy balance sheet.
In contrast, climbing Kilimanjaro is subjectively easier than either peak, entailing both less physical effort (guides generally carry the heavy loads), and less logistical and/or technical issues.
1John Sype guarded our mound of equipment at the Puente del Inca hostel and thus did not join us in this folly. On our descent, John continues hiking past the Horcones Valley park entrance to the red-roofed hostel; and then borrows my GPS unit to pinpoint our location in the river gully fourteen days earlier. Upon reascent to the hostel he closes an enormous hiking loop (since he had started there on Day 1); and with this act, secures for himself a 14,000 foot net elevation gain as well.
Physical Effort - Know Your Limitations
could not help but notice that both John and Edward breath easily when we take that hourly rest break from our upward toil. I continue panting. Heavily. I am not in poor condition - if anything, my blood pressure and pulse readings from the Base Camp physician indicated otherwise (100 / 65 mm Hg and 81 / minute at rest). That's pretty good at 14,300 feet. I exercise constantly at home, and fancy that for a 45 year old person I am in superb physical condition.
Edward sets a pace appropriate for somebody carrying one-third his weight as a full-sized backpack. One-third body weight is considered an ideal amount. That is just fine for himself and John. However the same weight is nearly (but not quite) one-half of my weight. I thus nearly "max-out" when they are well within their comfort zone.
I say nothing again. However inside I am fuming...
"Nonsense!"(in truth I think of stronger language) - "WHY THE HECK is not account made on expeditions for individual weight when apportioning equipment?2 I WON'T BE ABLE to HANDLE THE LOADS on Mount McKinley someday. I'll have to organize my own expedition so that I'm in-charge, at least partly, of "who carries WHAT"."
At only 110 pounds, my size is a definite disadvantage on days when camp is moved up to the next altitude notch. A handicap. I carry a 50 pound backpack to Camp Berlin. If you weigh 160 pounds (a "typical" weight for an American or European male), the corresponding pack weight is 73 pounds. How many of us are prepared to carry that much at 19,000 feet? I dare say that hefting such a mass, uphill at that great height would have most climbers out of breath as well. Most people would give up entirely and head for home complaining of why anybody would do this stuff just for fun.
View of the Aconcagua skyline at Lower Condores,
from the Independencia hut (hidden at left);
through the 21,000+ foot traverse; to both the
slightly higher, eastern summit at center;
and the western summit at the viewer's right.
When climbing, every factor is pitted against you physically. The altitude saps your ability to consume enough oxygen. The backpack weighs you down - one whose center of gravity lies BEHIND your body so that every step forward nearly requires the effort of walking through a watertank. And, of course, the route is UPHILL.
A "zillion" dollars will go to the first entrepreneur who markets a full-sized backpack that sits comfortably on your chest - while allowing complete, unimpeded forward vision!!
The physical labor of high altitude climbing is intimately related to the physiology of adaptation to that altitude. The same rate of energy expenditure at sea level is impossible to accomplish at 19,000 feet, simply because there is inadequate oxygen to be distributed to your muscles at the desired rate.
Thus in moving camp from Lower Condores (17,600 feet) to Camp Berlin (19,450 feet), we maintain the snail pace of 500 vertical feet per hour. That said, our time of just under four hours compares favorably to the "average" time reported for this section of the route.
If you enjoy the thrill of being at high altitude then you must pay the price of admission - one that is quite expensive for those of us, the majority, who get there under our own muscular effort. Physical training helps, and indeed is essential. However the old adage still rings true - "No pain - no elevation gain."
2Some account of individual weights was made when apportioning group gear. As John is slightly bigger than Edward he carries the twelve pound, all-season tent. Edward carries stoves and fuel; and I carry the group meals for a two or three day period. However this system still leaves each person responsible for their personal gear - an amount that is roughly equal in mass regardless of individual weight - and by far the largest fraction of weight carried. I estimate that when moving camp I carried 50 pounds; Edward 55 pounds; and John 60 pounds - again, hardly in proportion to our respective weights of 110, 155, and 170 pounds. That said, how can I reasonably expect somebody else to carry my food and clothing?
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