Preparation for Aconcagua Climbs
Note: Pack weights are slightly less for the Normal Route then the Vacas Valley. While the Vacas Valley route has double carries to lower weight, the Normal Route employs porters for group gear (tents, stoves, etc.). Porters are available for hire on each route to reduce pack weight.
During this adventure to the summit of Aconcagua (22,829 ft./6,962 m), you will need to build a high degree of strength endurance, high-altitude tolerance, high degree of self-care and strong cardiovascular conditioning. Just because you exercise regularly (four to six times per week) does not mean you have the conditioning needed to reach the highest point in South America. Plenty of people who have the endurance to run a marathon or compete in triathlons fail to summit high-altitude peaks. Pure cardiovascular fitness is simply not enough. Focus on building the physical conditioning necessary to ascend 3,500 ft. of vertical elevation gain on successive days carrying 45/50 lbs., or 35/40 lbs. with porters as well as the Normal Route. This trip includes a 30-mile approach trek over three days involving mule support on the Vacas Valley Route and shorter on the Normal Route, so you can enjoy the trek without extreme loads and double carries, and to keep pack weight down to allow for better acclimatization. Prioritize your training efforts in the following way, assuming that you are in good health and injury-free:
- Climbing conditioning — pack-loaded uphill hiking, walking, and stair climbing
- Strength training — for the lower body and core
- Cardiovascular training — including both aerobic and anaerobic workouts without pack weight
- Flexibility training
Most people will need to train specifically for their climb of Aconcagua for at least four to six months, building up from a solid baseline of fitness. During your training, you will need to progressively ramp up your hike time, distance, and elevation gain (at roughly 10% per week) to safely and effectively build your climbing-specific conditioning. Trying to rush this will increase the risk of experiencing some sort of training injury and not being ready for your trip. Below are more details of how to incorporate these four priorities into your training program.
(Note that suggested training weight may be slightly higher than estimated pack weights for your trip.)
Hike along outdoor trails, gradually increasing your pack weight until you feel comfortable carrying 35-40lb. on the Normal Route or 45-50 lb. on the Polish Route (less if using porters for personal gear). If you live where it is relatively flat, go up and down stairs or train on an inclined treadmill or Stair Master. Use whatever varied surface terrain (i.e. gravel beds, sand dunes, river banks) you have access to. A reasonable goal would be to ascend 3,500 ft. carrying an average pack of 40 lbs. in a two- to three-hour period, or roughly 1,500 vertical ft. per hour. A good training option for pack weight is to carry water in gallon containers or collapsible jugs, so you can dump water at the top as needed to lighten the load for the descent.
In early season, start with a hike that gains up to 2,000 ft. elevation over 5–7 miles round trip, and carry a 20-lb. pack; each hike, try adding three to five pounds until you are comfortable with a 50-lb. pack (Vacas Valley Route), then begin increasing the total elevation gain and mileage. When you can gain 3,000 ft. while carrying a 50-lb. pack, start decreasing rest breaks and increasing speed on each conditioning workout. A month from your climb, you should be comfortable hiking on successive days with at least 40 lbs. on one of those outings.
Two training techniques that will be useful for high-altitude trekking are: 1) Interval training. 2) Back-to-back training (discussed in more detail in “Putting it All Together,” below). To include interval training, find a steep hill or sets of stairs that will allow you to climb steadily for several minutes. Push as hard as you can going up, then recover coming down, and repeat for anywhere from 20–45 minutes depending on how close to your climb you are. Gradually add weight to your pack (no more than 10% per week) until you can carry 45/50 lbs. if training for the Vacas Valley Route; or 35/40 lbs. if training for the Normal Route the entire time. If possible, participate in as many hikes at altitude – and in winter conditions — as you possibly can to learn how your body reacts in extreme cold and above 13,000 ft. elevation.
Be sure to include at least 5–10 minutes of targeted stretching following every workout, specifically for the hamstrings, glutes, hips, calves, forearms, lower back, and quadriceps. If you have any areas of concern early season, add emphasis to making sure you have normal range of motion about all your joints. This will become even more important as you add weight and distance to your conditioners.
Training with free weights, bands, a backpack, bodyweight exercises, or gym machines will help you build overall strength, particularly in the core (lower back and abdominals), upper back and shoulders, and legs. Developing strength in your upper back and shoulders will help you with such tasks as carrying your pack and using trekking poles effectively. The calves, hips, quads, hamstrings, and glutes are all involved in ascending and descending steep, hard-packed snow and ice slopes, and a great degree of strength endurance is required in all areas of the legs and hips.
Training primarily with free weights will give you the functional, climbing-specific strength that will help you most in the mountains. Free-weight training requires that you balance the weights as you would your own body: weighted with a pack, in three-dimensional space. When starting any strength conditioning program, complete two full-body strength workouts a week for 45–60 minutes each, focusing on compound exercises such as squats, lunges, step-ups, dips, pull-ups, rows, dead lifts, bench presses, pushups, and overhead presses.
In the beginning phase of strength conditioning, focus on building a foundation for harder workouts — to that end, keep the weight light enough to concentrate on good form and complete two sets of each exercise for 8–10 repetitions. As you continue to train, you will shift focus to building strength (generally lower reps, five to eight with heavier weight). Four to six weeks before your climb, shift your training to focus on strength endurance (higher reps of 10–15 each with light weight) to turn the newly gained strength into greater strength endurance. At each training phase you should vary the weight used, repetitions completed, number of sets, and rest intervals. Regardless of training phase, always be sure you maintain proper form in order to prevent injury or strain.
Include spinal-loading aerobic training options four to six times a week. Appropriate options include: trail running, walking on an inclined treadmill, stair-stepping or step-mill training, jogging, working on an elliptical machine, walking up and down hills, or participating in step-aerobic classes. While biking, rowing, and swimming are aerobic options for the earliest stages of training, be sure, as you get closer to your trip, that you include activities suggested above that load the spine and legs the same way that hiking will.
When first beginning a cardiovascular training program, begin with three weekly workouts of 30–45 minutes of sustained activity at a moderate intensity, and build to four to five aerobic sessions of sustained effort for at least 45–60 minutes. Be sure to include a 5–10-minute gentle warm-up before working at your target heart rate for the day (for most workouts, choose a level of exertion that allows you to connect a few words together in a phrase, but leaves you feeling comfortably tired at the end of the workout), and cool down with 5–10 minutes of appropriate stretching of the muscles you use most in your activity, including: lower back, calves, hamstrings, hips, and quadriceps.
Putting it all together
Roughly a month before your climb, you should be at the conditioning level where you are comfortable hiking on consecutive weekend days, what is referred to as back-to-back training. This involves hiking with your target climb pack weight (50 lbs.) on the first day for at least 3,000 ft. gain, and a somewhat lighter pack (30–35 lbs.) for greater mileage or elevation gain on the second day to simulate the back-to-back requirements of long days on your trip. This will not only be helpful physically, but also prepare you psychologically for the challenge of repeat high-effort days without any recovery days in between. A sample week of training a month prior to your climb might look like the chart above, in an effort to help you build as much stamina as possible.
Be sure to include at least one recovery day per week and listen closely to your body. Take the final week to taper or gradually reduce intensity and volume of training so that by the time you leave for your trip you are well-rested and physically and psychologically up to the challenge.
You can find additional training resources at www.BodyResults.com for the following:
- Training Articles
- Training Books and DVDs
- Customized Online Mountaineering Specific Training
Special discounts are available for Alpine Ascents Customers at the page
This training information was provided by Wilderness Sports Conditioning experts Courtenay and Doug Schurman of BodyResults.com. They are the exclusive conditioning resource for Alpine Ascents. They oversee all client training, are co-authors of the book, The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and are creators of the Train to Climb Mt Rainier DVD.
30–45 min recovery level (<65% max HR).
10–15 min. at the end.
Full body, 12–15 reps per set, 1 hour.
Hills, stairs or high incline treadmill 20 or 40 lb. pack interval level (short bursts >85% max HR).
10–15 min. at the end.
75–90 min. no pack distance level (65-75% max HR).
10–15 min. at the end.
Full body, 8–10 reps per set, 1 hour.
45 min. no pack tempo level (75-85% max HR).
10–15 min. at the end.
Hike 8–10 miles, 45–50 lb. pack or 20–25 lbs. for Normal Route, gain 3,000 ft.
As needed to prevent stiffness.
Hike 10–12 miles, 45–50 lb. pack or 20–25 lbs. for Normal Route, gain 3,000 ft.
As needed to prevent stiffness.
An Open Letter to those interested in Climbing Aconcagua
The following letter from Willi Pritte applies to any route or guide service on Aconcagua, there is no easy way up. While this letter is 10+ years old, we feel it remains a great resource.
First and foremost, many tend to underestimate the physical fitness needs of a high altitude expedition such as this. Yes, Aconcagua has the reputation of being an “easy” and “non-technical” mountain by most routes This does not mean “non-physical” by any stretch of the imagination. Over the years, I have had many climbers on my expeditions who have climbed mountain such as Denali before coming to Aconcagua. Almost universally they believe that Aconcagua as physically demanding as Denali was for them. Take heed of this. The greater the fitness you show up with, the better you will tend to do and the more you will enjoy the expedition. At the very least this can mean that you can sit back and enjoy the afternoons instead of being whipped every day! It is also worth noting that less fit or overweight people are pushing themselves far more, and this additional stress can seriously adversely affect the entire acclimation process which is so important on high altitude expeditions.
Regarding the “non-technical” nature of Aconcagua: This is only true sometimes. There is much misinformation about this mountain both in guidebooks and on the internet. Like any big mountain, things can change frequently and rapidly. Often a climb of Aconcagua, even by one of its routes, can involve lots of trail-breaking in deep snow, and/or long traversing sections of hard ice where the knowledge and proper use of crampons and ice axes are critical to safety. (In fact, most trips in the past few seasons have required the use of ice axe and crampons during the climb.) If you have no mountaineering experience, these situations can be demanding but we still consider this a non-technical climb by mountaineering standards. If your only mountain experience has been something such as Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua is a big step up in challenge. Real technical mountaineering experience, such as our 6-Day course, should be considered first. Have you put a 50 -pound pack (porters can lighten this load) on and climbed extensive mountain terrain? Are you comfortable with the use of crampons and ice axe when tired and looking down a long way? If the answer is no, then you need to get that experience before joining an expedition. Being both fit and technically competent for the challenges of an expedition is a very important part of being a productive team member. When you come to Aconcagua (or any expedition), you are not 10 individuals attempting to climb a mountain, you are part of a team functioning together to enhance the safety and enjoyment of the expedition. If you come unprepared physically, technically, or equally important, mentally, then you are not a productive team member and others must then make up for your deficits which negatively impacts the team and can negatively impact safety.
Be realistic about any personal limitations you may have. Do you have a history of heart problems? Make sure that you seriously consider what you are attempting to do on an expedition, and how physically demanding it is (and consult with your doctor) before you decide to join. Do you have exercise induced asthma? Realize that Aconcagua is a very dry and at times cold and at times dusty environment, probably the likes of which you have never experienced. Bring plenty of your normal meds and be prepared for the possibility that you may have abnormally bad reactions which may mean you will need to leave the expedition early. Whatever personal health limitations you may have, you never know how your body will cope with an environment such as Aconcagua until you try it a few times, so be conservative.
We do have porters available at an additional cost to assist and built into some programs, with carrying loads and personal equipment. (However, this does not mean one may be unfit, or technically unqualified.)
When properly prepared for this expedition, I’m sure you will be favorably impressed with the magnificent scenery, the culture, and the great climbing here. I look forward to meeting you and climbing with you in Argentina! You will occasionally read on the internet, or in magazine articles, or in guidebooks about how ugly Aconcagua is. I’m convinced that two types of people write these things. The first type have never been here in the first place and are only parroting what they have heard from someone else. The second type have no soul and don’t belong in the mountains anywhere!
Happy training and climbing.
Senior Guide, Alpine Ascents International