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Aconcagua

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Overview of Aconcagua

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Altitude

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Reducing effects of altitude

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Climate and weather

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Overview of Aconcagua

At 6962 m, Aconcagua offers very good value in mountaineering terms.  Considered a big mountain, it is easily accessible and relatively easy to climb. In fact, the routes that we use are considered hiking routes, albeit slightly more technical due to the use of crampons and ice-axes.   Located some 30-km north of the Pan American highway between Chile and Argentina, the normal cumbersome logistics involved in other big mountain expeditions are comfortably absent.

The mountain is located approximately 32.5 degrees south of the equator and has a desert climate at its base. It is one of a number of Andean peaks that are higher than 6500m. Rivers are swift flowing and silt laden.  The desert climate brings insufficient snow accumulation to resist the melting effect of the sun on the northern slopes.  In a dry year it is possible to get to the top without walking on snow or ice.  Usually, however, there is enough to warrant the use of crampons.  There are many glaciers, especially on the south facing slopes which get much less sun.  Because the Andes are eroding at such a high rate, many glaciers are completely covered in rubble in their lower reaches.

The latitude of the mountain is similar to Cape Town and as such has a dry Mediterranean climate with warm dry summers.  This is the time to climb Aconcagua (pronounced ‘Ackoncahwah’).  The mountain is located in its own National Park on the border between Chile and Argentina.  The park is extremely well managed and everything is geared for the benefit of climbers.  Wardens, medical staff, guides and infrastructure are all provided.  The park is open to climbers from 1 Dec to 31 March.  There are no vehicles and no litter – each climber/expedition brings all its litter back down again.
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Altitude

There are many symptoms of the effect of high altitude and everyone is affected. Shortness of breath is the most obvious and increases with altitude.  For this reason start each day hiking slowly and then taper off.  Above 6000m it can take 1 minute to walk 100m on the level.  With a pack and a steep gradient this could extend to 10 minutes. Thus it could take 5 hours or more to traverse 3 km while climbing.

Headaches are the next most common ailment – often accompanied by vomiting.  These may be relieved by an analgesic but can be more severe.  Next comes loss of appetite. One must “force yourself” to eat and plenty too.  High carbohydrate foods in good quantities are essential – continual snacking is strongly suggested. 

Of a far more serious nature but rare, is High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACE).  This is typically water retention accumulated on the brain. It causes vomiting, dizziness, incoherence, fainting, and is very serious indeed, often fatal. Immediate descent with rest is the only possible cure.  High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPE) is almost as serious.  This is fluid accumulation in the lungs. It causes gurgling breath, and a wheezy chest, often accompanied by blood in the sputum when coughing.  The only cure, if identified early enough, is descent. Both HACE and HAPE can be fatal and these conditions are the most serious of altitude conditions. For your own safety, the guides and leader will be ever vigilant to your condition. Do not hesitate to ask for assistance or to offer it.

The last serious effect is frostbite, mostly from cold.  It affects body extremities (fingertips nose and toes) so ensure these are covered at all times outside when not in direct use.  If you start to feel pain, then frostbite is about to set in if no action is taken. Remember, when pain is no longer felt, then it should be assumed that frostbite has already set in.
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Reducing effects of altitude

All the above symptoms are severely worsened by insufficient liquid intake.  In fact many agree that the best treatment for all symptoms is high fluid intake.  At least 4 and preferably up to 6 litres /day are essential. Alcohol, even in small amounts, is a very definite no-no.

Careful acclimatisation helps hugely to reduce adverse effects of altitude. Competition to be the first in camp or first to get to point ‘x’ is a recipe for disaster.  It pushes people unnecessarily. The slower the pace, the better. All the distances between camps can easily be attained when walking at a leisurely pace.  There is never a need to rush. 

The practice of conducting ‘a carry’ is used for climbing above base camp.  You set out from a camp with a portion of the load for the next higher camp. You leave this load there and descend to the lower camp where you sleep.  It usually takes a third of the time to descend as it does to climb.  This is called a carry. The next day you strike camp and carry the rest of the gear up to the higher camp.  This way we climb high and sleep low.  This exposes the body to the higher altitude but uses the lower altitude to rest. Carries are planned well in advance, but may be changed depending on the condition of the team and weather conditions at the time.

If all precautions are heeded there is a very good chance that you will summit with minimum discomfort other than the normal exhaustion and fatigue from hiking at altitude.
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Climate and weather

Although technically a desert and because of it sheer height Aconcagua is nevertheless able to attract bad weather.  Occasional summer storms do occur but snowfall is then relatively light.  Nevertheless the cold is intense and the wind fierce.  Anywhere on earth above 5000m, wind is prevalent and Aconcagua is no exception.  Almost every day, a plume of driven snow is visible from the peak.  This indicates high winds and generally not the best days for summit attempts.  Above 6000m, expect temperatures down to -20oC before sunrise with a wind chill extending this to a possible minus 30 degrees C.  What little snow falls, rarely melts but is removed by the wind.  Below 6000m melting does occur on warm calm afternoons.  On average the temperature drops 1oC for every 125 m vertical.  For example if it is 5oC  in the early morning at 3000m, then, at 6000m it is 3000/125 = 24 degrees colder  or – 19oC..

Although altitude, cold and wind present a serious danger, they are obvious.  What is not obvious is the effect of the sun. Exposed skin is “burnt” in minutes (by reflected sun, wind and cold) and the dry air aggravates the damage in preventing body moisture from bringing on healing.  Lip balms and a high factor sun-block help significantly and should be used.

If there is little or no wind, in the sun it may be quite warm at any altitude, but this warmth is not benign infra-red – it is damaging ultra violet.  If you are walking in snow, especially old compacted snow, wear a balaclava, not because it may be cold but to protect the down-facing surfaces of the face from U.V. rays that is strongly reflected upwards.
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