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South America, Argentina, Central Andes, Aconcagua, General Overview

Aconcagua, General Overview. The tallest peak in the Western Hemisphere had a tough season. The normal routes up the 22,832-foot peak are non-technical, and easy access to high altitude has proved increasingly deadly in recent years as more people have attempted the mountain and the weather has worsened. In the 1998 season, the mighty El NiƱo pelted Aconcagua with high winds, rain and snow, and as many as 15 climbers were killed. Unlike the heavily publicized Everest tragedy, these climbers died one to three at a time over a three-month stretch, and thus went virtually unnoticed by the public.

I worked as a guide on the Polish Glacier side of the mountain and was amazed at what I saw and heard. Teams were pinned in Camps I and II for a week or more by poor weather. Four bodies were stacked in Camp II. A German climber in his late teens lay frozen near the summit on the Polish Direct. (He had been feeling tired and was encouraged by his partners to take a nap and catch up when he felt better.) Three Brazilians were avalanched off the technical and massive South Face, and an American froze to death while climbing alone in a storm on the Normal Route.

The official number of deaths could not be attained, because the Argentine permit office feared the impact on tourism. I was more-or-less escorted out once the officials learned of my request for information. However, rangers in Base Camp gave an unofficial estimate of 13 to 15 killed. Although all guides agreed the weather was worse then they had ever seen on Aconcagua, unsound decisions to push for the summit are behind most of the deaths.

Kent McClannan, unaffiliated