The Normal Route is the simplest route, sometimes incorrectly called North, since in fact it is the Northwest Route. In general no short-shafted ice axe or ropes are needed. For practical purposes, climbers use ski poles and crampons. Going up by this route there are several itineraries; therefore, it is common to set up two or three altitude camps ("Plaza Canadá", "Nido de Cóndores" and "Berlín" or "Cólera"). This route is the most chosen by climbers as it does not present any technical difficulty; this means that the climbers don´t require a previous climbing experience on rocks or ice. It may be hiked, just by walking. You may have to use crampons and fixed ropes for your security, depending on the conditions of the route. The following is a complete breakdown of the route with information, maps and photos.
Climbing Aconcagua via Normal Route
440m elevation gain
The park ranger´s station at "Horcones" is the starting point to reach "Plaza de Mulas" base camp. The first day´s goal is getting to "Confluencia" camp. After the usual procedure at the park ranger station, showing the trekking or ascent permit, climbers will be provided with a numbered bag for trash. Trekking along the Horcones gulch starts there, after leaving the Horcones lagoon. Walking along a well-defined path, the climber will arrive at the next distinctive spot: the bridge over Horcones River (built during the making of the film “Seven Years in Tibet”). Crossing the river, there is a fairly green spot at the end of the "El Durazno" gulch. From then on, the path is always visible on the right riverside. There is a gentle, yet steady slope up to Confluencia Camp.
910m elevation gain
Being this stretch a quite long, steep slope, it is advisable to go trekking to the viewpoint on the Southern Wall (originally "Plaza Francia" (4000m) as an acclimatization warm-up, in order to arrive at Plaza de Mulas in better shape. From Confluencia, there is a path leading to the bridge over lower Horcones River. Many signs in the rough area indicate the way to such bridge. After crossing it, the path goes along the left riversideof lower Horcones River to an area of old moraine, to end at "Playa Ancha", a 10-km-long plain, situated between 3600 and 3800m of altitude. "Quebrada del Sargento Más" offers a quite interesting spot from where both summits of Aconcagua can be seen (see image).
Playa Ancha is a formation of alluvial material and boulders which ends at another distinctive spot of this trip: "Ibáñez", situated at the very base of the "towers" wich signal the beginning of Aconcagua´s great western wall. At this point, the ground turns rougher and steeper, going through deposits from the western face which alternate with other moraine deposits, always on the right side of Horcones River. Our next spot is "Colombia" (4070m), the remains of a former military shelter on the left side of our path, wich was destroyed by a huge avalanche. And thus we are led to "Cuesta Brava", a short but rather steep slope at 4000m.
The path goes along moraine to Plaza de Mulas, where the ranger´s shelter is and where travelers must "check in". The camping spots are related to the different companies wich provide different services. Plaza de Mulas is a real city of tents. There is, in addition, a coordinates service which includes specialized medical care, a rescue patrol (Mendoza Police) and park rangers. The Plaza de Mukas shelter-hotel is 15 minutes west of the base camp.
Climbing Aconcagua mountain via Normal Route
750m elevation gain
A well-defined and rather steep, winding track starts at Plaza de Mulas and leads to "El Semáforo" (4550m), a narrow path between rocky formations. From there, the ascent follows clear tracks up to a monotonous, isolated rocky spot known as "Las Piedras de Conway" (4750m).
Named after Sir William Martin Conway, an english scientist, an Art professor and a mountaineer, who, in 1898 rached El Filo del Guanaco, which joins both of Aconcagua Summits. The ascent continues to a diagonal path which zigzags left of the rocky pinnacle that forms Camp 1 Plaza Canadá (5050m).
500m elevation gain
Plaza Canadá is left behind through a long diagonal path leading to a huge rock known as the "5000m stone". From there on, the winding path reaches another strategic point: "Cambio de Pendiente" (5300m), an ideal place to put up tents and camp, this giving the climber the chance to set only two campings spots: Cambio de Pendiente and Berlín.
From Cambio de Pendiente there are two possible ways up: a) zigzagging northwards to the "Gran Acarreo" (the huge scree) to finally reach Nido de Cóndores; or b) following the straightforward ascent through the cirque formed by Gran Acarreo and Cerro Manso, if there are no snow lumps blocking the way.
Next is Nido de Cóndores, an area made up of rocky peaks of unusual shapes which, some cool summer afternoon back in 1897 provided Fitz Gerald and his people with shelter for the strong winds blowing from the west.
380m elevation gain
This is a considerably shorter stretch, but altitude influences breathing at this point, so traveling becomes a lot slower now. The route continues eastward on its way up to a group of rocky hills. The northern view turns more and more amazing as the closer peaks are left behind.
Another distinctive spot is near now: "El Balcón Amarillo", a beautiful rock formation which suggest a well-deserved rest before making the last effort.
We are eastward bound now and, after a couple of turns, one is faced with the diagonal path leading to Berlín. At this point, an alternative route appears on the right, heading toward a rocky terrace of yellow shades. It is the path to Plaza Cólera (5950m), an alternative to camping which is equidistant from Berlín. So, we arrived to Berlin (5930m).
1032m elevation gain
Always is said that arriving at Berlín is the first half of the jouney and the ascent. Summit day is the second half.
Summit day starts pretty early. The route is clear and extends among rock formations up to an area known as "Piedras Blancas" (6060m), where is continues on the northern edge of the mountain to later reach -through a narrow path- its northeastern side. From there on, the ascent continues to a zigzagging area which, in turn, leads to one of the key spots on Summit day: "Refugio Independencia" (6380m).
This is the right time to assess energy supplies and general conditions to face the final steps. Decisions about going ahead must be taken after serious consideration.
The journey now continues up a ridge known as "Portezuelo del Viento", situated west of the shelter. Then, the long trekking goes above the Gran Acarreo from the east to west . Conditions here may vary greatly. Strong morning gusts usually come up from the valley, which accounts for serious wind chill. Regarding terrain, some huge stretches of frozen snow -or even ice- may appear, so the use of crampons and axes is recommended. Although the slope is only about 30 degrees, slipping on the ice at this height might cause serious physical problems. The route leads to a much steeper diagonal and this, in turn, to the base of the so-called "La Canaleta", where there is a rocky, concave-base wall of conglomerate known as "La Cueva" (6650m).
The paths up La Canaleta are rather steep and extend along its west end, near the rocky wall, which narrows down untill it disappears in El Acarreo. Progress to the right among loose rocks becomes slow at this point, where the route it steep. Short zigzags will now lead to the mountains ridge. A few meters before the ridge is the path which goes slightly up across "El Filo del Guanaco", thus avoiding excessive exposure to the Southern Wall. This spot is 6800m high and the Summit can be seen toward the east, at the end of the journey. Exhaustion caused by hipoxia is critical here: walking becames extremely slow and frequent stops are necessary for hikers to stretch their legs and recover the normal pulse rate. I recommend at this point forcing ventilation a little so as to provide lungs with more oxygen. Also, frequent candy intake (sugar) will help keep high levels of sugar in the bloodstream. Finally, a flask with a hot beverage will prevent dehydration, a problem which will not be completely avoided, due to hyperventilation, the dry air and the impossibility to carry enough drinks for the whole journey.
Short as it seem, this final stage might take as much as forty-five to sixty minutes of hard trekking. This is the point where climbers´physical, mental and acclimatization training is really tested. Toward the end of the Filo del Guanaco, there is a very rocky passage up the northern peak and a few rocky steps which finally lead to the Summit.
This is the way in which Stuart Vines explains the view that opens up before his eyes from the Summit of the Americas at 360 degrees, in his second ascent in 1897:
"This wonderful panorama of mountains, glaciers and snow-covered fields opened up some 23000 feet above see level. Penitente valley was cut by Mercedario, Güssfeldt route, with a reputation of invincible and its gigantic, 20-degree, white-colored mountain sides, presented no obstacles. In the middle of this inmense view, numerous giants towered up like perfect pyramids of volcanic appearance. Red, brown and yellow rocks endlessly alternated with cliffs in a sea of mountains 60 miles wide and 13000 feet high. Towards the south, the bordering Tolosa and the Gemelos could be seen as silent guardians on the way to Chile. The Juncal glaciers, the snow-capped peaks of Navarro and Polleras, Leones, Plomo and Tupungato. Neither the camera, nor the pen would be able to accurately describe this view. The Pacific was shining blue under the afternoon sun, now turning red. Everything appeared to be close at hand. Quillota and Robles were there, and then valleys, full of clouds like arms of the sea, amongst which rocky islands emerged from ghostly waters. Ten miles away, the heads of the Horcones and the Vacas appeared surrounded by black cliffs, reddish mountain sides and nearby glaciers of icy peaks. The Penitentes offered its greatest ice fields on the other side. Tiny Almacenes cast some doubt: could that colorful rock we usually saw above our heads from the valley be so small? Everything seemed so distant ..."