The Mendoza Province in the west of Argentina is a giant of geology. Among the vineyards of red Malbec grapes, palaeontologists have not only found perhaps the largest dinosaur in existence, Argentinosaurus, but, travelling over the mountain pass towards Chile, one may also catch a glimpse of Aconcagua, the largest mountain in the western and southern hemispheres. It is the highest peak outside of the Himalaya, a towering 6,962 m.
The peak is of an extinct volcano, which last erupted around 9.5 million years ago in the Miocene. At this time, the Nazca plate, subducting below the South American, changed its course, adopting a shallower angle of dip. The effect of this shallower subduction was an increase in pressure directed at the continental plate. This pressure thrust Aconcagua from its vent, dramatically increasing its height.
Edward Fitzgerald was an American born mountaineer and soldier of British descent. Early in his twenties he took a hiking trip around the Alps. While there, he met with a Swiss guide, Matthias Zurbriggen. Having presumably got on very well together, Edward and Matthias travelled to New Zealand in attempt to be the first to climb Mount Cook (they were pipped to the post by locals who, hearing of their intentions and not wishing the first ascent to be made by foreigners, climbed it themselves).
After a few years of climbing other mountains in Australasia, Edward gathered an expedition group including himself, a geologist, a naturalist, an engineer, a surveyor and 6 guides, including Matthias as lead guide and, in 1896, headed for South America.
The team set off with two main goals: to survey and study the high plateau regions of the southern Andes, and to climb Aconcagua.
The initial surveys and studies were successful, leading to the publication of his book, The Highest Andes in 1899. This left the expedition with their second objective – climb Aconcagua.
Having spent six weeks surveying the pass between Mendoza and Santiago, the team decided to approach Aconcagua on 23 December 1896, constructing a base camp on Christmas day in the Horcones Valley at 4,250 m altitude. To begin with, the group conducted reconnaissance hikes, scouting the mountain for the optimal route to the peak. It was on these trips that they decided to climb the mountain via the Normal Route, the route that was first attempted by a team led by the German geologist Paul Güssfeldt in 1883.
On their first attempt at the summit, Fitzgerald succumbed to altitude sickness at 6000 m and turned back. On his second attempt, he stopped at the same height and again on the third. It wasn’t until his sixth attempt at the climb that Fitzgerald, having reached the same altitude, allowed Zurbriggen to continue without him. Zurbriggen climbed alone to the summit of Aconcagua, reaching the 6,962 m peak on 14 January 1897.
In the highlands of Asia, the Buddhists considered the mountains holy and therefore did not climb their peaks, forbidding foreigners from climbing them either. This meant that, for a short while at least, Zurbriggen had been higher than any other human on Earth.
Or had he?
Unlike the Buddhists, the Incas did not consider the mountains to be holy, or climbing them to be taboo. Quite the opposite – the Incas worshipped the sun and regularly climbed the mountains of the Andes in order to get closer to their God.
In 1985, two hikers came across the body of a child on Aconcagua at a height of 5,300 m. The boy, who was seven years old when he died, had been killed by a blow to the head in an Incan ritual. Archaeologists excavating the burial site discovered that the body had been left in a semi-circular site marked by stones. Genetic identification of the boy placed him as a descendent of coastal Peru, who had probably travelled across the Atacama Desert to be killed in this ritual.
These kinds of ritual killings of children and teenagers were fairly common in Incan culture. Those who are particularly interested can visit a museum in Arequipa, Peru’s second city, which exhibits Juanita, a child found at the top of Mount Ampato (6,288 m). Be warned, the bodies are not the same as the mummies of Egypt. The children were not mummified, instead preserved by the extreme dry, cold, mountainous climate.
Even higher on Aconcagua, two hikers traversing the southern peak in 1947 came across the carcass of a guanaco, small camelids related very closely to the alpaca, in a ridge between the North and South peaks at approximately 6,700 m. Guanacos do not live at heights even close to 6,700 m and so it is more than likely that these remains are of an Incan meal.
Having never created a written language, we can’t be sure whether or not the Incas reached the summit of Aconcagua some 400 years before Zurbriggen, but it is almost certain that more archaeological sites remain hidden at Aconcagua and on many other mountains in the Incas’ once vast Empire.