BUENOS AIRES – Climbers from around the world dream of conquering the summit of Aconcagua, a mountain in the west-central Argentine province of Mendoza that is the highest peak in the Americas.
But mountaineering also provides a living for local guides, who are trusted to navigate potentially treacherous conditions that include strong winds, snowstorms and even avalanches.
This year, however, has presented these uniquely skilled workers with a new and unprecedented challenge: major disruptions to their business stemming from strict COVID-19 mitigation measures put in place at Aconcagua Provincial Park, including a prohibition on overnight stays that have made the up to 20-day climb impossible.
That decision has exacted a hefty toll locally, stripping the park of its main source of revenue and threatening the livelihoods of nearly 500 direct employees and many other indirect workers in Mendoza’s tourism industry.
The first person to reach the top of Aconcagua (6,961 meters above sea level) was Switzerland’s Matthias Zurbriggen in 1897.
Since then, that Andes peak has become a magnet for climbers intent on conquering the “Seven Summits,” or the highest mountains of each of the seven continents: Aconcagua in South America, Mount Everest (8,848 m) in Asia, Mount Elbrus (5,542 m) in Europe, Denali (6,190 m) in North America, Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895 m) in Africa, Puncak Jaya (4,884 m) in Oceania and Vinson Massif (4,892 m) in Antarctica.
The climbing season at Aconcagua Provincial Park runs from November to April every year, but most expeditions take place between the end of November and the end of February when the weather in the Southern Hemisphere summer is most favorable.
According to park officials, around 9,000 people visited the park in 2019-2020. Roughly 3,200 individuals (90 percent of them foreigners) hired the service of guides to lead them up Aconcagua and between 30-40 percent of them ascended to the summit.
“The others reached different altitudes based on their health, the weather and the time they had (for the ascent),” said Mario Gonzalez, a retired guide, founder of the Argentine Association of Mountain Guides (AAGM) and member of the Aconcagua Provincial Park’s Permanent Advisory Commission.
“Whoever is stronger in terms of their training, their diet, their acclimatization (to the altitude) and their technical knowledge of the terrain is the one who’s going to get a little bit higher,” he added.
Different paths lead to Aconcagua’s summit.
The “normal” route is a non-technical walk-up that follows the mountain’s Northwest Ridge. “It’s the easiest, with more gentle slopes,” Nils Fontenla, a mountain guide and AAGM delegate in Mendoza, told EFE.
The south face, by sharp contrast, features steep rocky slopes and massive glacier ice formations and, according to Gonzalez, is “not for everyone.”
Guides typically lead climbers on a gradual, multi-staged ascent that allows their bodies to adapt optimally to the different altitudes. Expeditions to the summit, therefore, normally take between 13-20 days, with each guide leading between three and five per season.
“Probably if we’d want to go up suddenly … to the summit of Aconcagua, with its nearly 7,000 meters, after a few hours we’d start to have a series of difficulties that could even be fatal,” Fontenla said.
Besides the need for excellent physical conditioning, knowledge of the terrain and ability to analyze weather conditions and monitor the health of the climbers in their care, the guides also need the requisite leadership skills that make people “willing to follow you,” he added.
The bulk of clients who hire guides to lead them to the summit arrive from abroad, mainly from the United States and Europe, and typically confirm their expedition plans in the months of September and October.
But that business dried up this year due to uncertainty about COVID-19 and potential travel restrictions, as well as the strict measures adopted by the Aconcagua Provincial Park.
That means demand this year for short treks with no overnight stays will have to come from local residents interested in exploring the park’s natural beauty.
Ascents to the summit, with the chance for climbers to reach an altitude of nearly 7,000 meters and tick off another item on their bucket list, will have to wait for another day.