Aconcagua’s South Face by Willie Benegas

The South Face of Aconcagua is among the biggest of the world’s big walls; its towering 9000 feet are made up of dreadfully rotten rock, collapsing ice cliffs, and steep, plunging slopes of snow and ice. It seems an environment designed to repel anyone with any sense of self-preservation. Still, for all these unappealing traits, the force of the nature of Aconcagua’s South Face beckons to all climbers to test their skills. The legend of the South Face fascinated me for years. After a long but extremely successfull guiding season on the Normal Route on the opposite side of the mountain, it came to me that it was time to ask Aconcagua’s permission to scale its more daunting side. I needed a partner. Damian, my twin brother, still had guiding responsibilities elsewhere. Second in line was Horacio Cunety, who had more than a decade of experience on this mountain: without any reservations, he jumped into this crazy but fulfilling idea of climbing the South Face. High-altitude sickness would not be an issue, since we had climbed the mountain four times already that season. Feeling strong and confident, we decided to climb fast and light, carrying only the minimum necessary: supplies for two days of climbing—although the normal time is five days. As we left Puente del Inca in the morning, the weather was fantastic. We set off full of energy as we hiked toward the route, when suddenly the immensity of the South Face was before us, its terrain appearing like the surface of the moon. Unavoidable doubts haunted us; we felt preyed upon by the face’s constant, overwhelming presence. It seemed almost impossible to look anywhere else; our eyes were constantly drawn to the avalanches sweeping the face as we searched it for clues, wondering, worrying. The knowledge that we’d soon be up there, enclosed by the vertical world, brought immediacy and a cold reality to our expedition.

Familiarity however, is a wonderful salve: we know this mountain well; we have thirty years of combined experience; we have studied every feature a thousand times. We felt more comfortable as we got closer and closer. We wasted no time, starting to climb right away, and when darkness engulfed us, we were surrounded by towers of less than desirable rock. We advanced quickly to the base of the towers, where we made a cozy bivy.

After a good sleep, we started climbing again at 4:00 am under the glow of our headlamps. A mist descended on us, but we were in a mystical place and we moved in perfect harmony, not needing to think, not needing to say anything: we knew what to do. By late afternoon, we had reached the base of the Superior Glacier. After a few minutes searching for a perfect bivy spot, we settled for an uninviting crevasse where, in desperate need of hydration, we quickly started to melt snow.

Sunrise brought us to the base of the dreadful serac. Searching for a safe passage was a hard and stressful undertaking; every side seemed crazy until we finally managed to find a perfect tunnel. Some ingenious digging brought us to the surface of Superior Glacier, where my eyes feasted upon the savage beauty of this mountain.

By the end of the day, we had reached the halfway point on the French Pillar, at 19,500 feet (5944 m). Under darkness, we started the long and exhausting process of digging on the ridge crest to create a platform scarcely big enough to accommodate half of me, let alone the two of us. Dehydration and sore muscles were the norm by morning. It was cold and windy, but the rocks were the best we had seen so far. Still, the mighty South Face was not giving up. Every foot we gained was through hard work, but despite the difficulties, we were moving well. At one belay, I discovered under some snow, much to my surprise, climbing artifacts from the first ascent by the French Expedition in 1954. So many years ago. In that moment I was struck by thoughts of that historic ascent, of those amazing climbers.

Finally we reached the summit ridge ourselves; the South Face had given us its permission. By late afternoon, Horacio and I stood atop the roof of the Americas; the South Face had brought me humility, trust, and teamwork.




On the approach to Aconcagua  (photo: Mike Hamill)