My original plan for the Ishinca valley had been to tackle the peaks in order of increasing difficulty: Urus, Ishinca, Tocllaraju. However, I realized that Ishinca would be a short climb, so I could save a day by doing Tocllaraju second, then Ishinca on the same day I returned to Huaraz. I had no idea how to use that day, but there are more peaks within my ability in the Cordillera Blanca than I have time to climb. Tocllaraju’s difficulty depends upon the conditions of its glacier and summit mushroom. It was in good condition this year, and while I probably won’t do anything more technically difficult on this trip, I found it a challenging but manageable solo.
The standard route climbs the west glacier to the north ridge, then follows that to the summit mushroom, a uniquely Andean snow feature that is normally vertical on all sides. Since the north ridge gets early sun, I needed to climb it reasonably early, before the snow deteriorated too much; on the other hand, since my hands don’t do well in extreme cold, I needed to start late enough not to be miserable. I compromised, setting my alarm for 4:30 and starting from base camp around 5:00. There was little difference cold- and dark-wise between 5:00 and 7:00, so the early start was no great hardship.
I spent a bit over an hour following the mostly-clear trail toward Tocllaraju high camp by headlamp, watching the slow progress of a pair of headlamps low on Ranrapalca’s north face. The sun rose behind me on Ranrapalca and the lower western mountains as I passed a few tents and a lone man at the camp, put on crampons, and started up the glacier. With the peak in good condition, there was a clear boot-pack to the ridge. This was fortunate, because while the crevasses were not especially dangerous, the safe path through them was circuitous, and would have taken time and backtracking to find on my own.
I passed another tent staked ridiculously on a frigid flat spot in the glacier, less than a half-hour from the normal high camp, then had to take out my second tool for one of a couple of steep pitches on the winding way through the crevasses below the ridge. I finally reached the sun on the ridge around 8:45, taking a minute to warm up, have a snack, and watch a distant climber tackling the final vertical step onto the summit. Then I set off up the ridge, which was broad and mostly low-angle, but surprisingly broken by seracs and crevasses.
Thanks to the wind, the snow was harder and the track more obscure on the ridge, but I made only one small wrong turn on the path to the summit blob. There were some huge blocks of snow and ice on the east side of the ridge, evidence of a massive serac collapse sometime in the past. The route had a couple of thin sections getting around crevasses and seracs, but with hard snow and two tools, they were not particularly threatening, and I soon found myself approaching the final pitches.
I saw that there were three holes through the final vertical-to-overhanging wall around the summit: one on the left for rappeling, one in the center that I had seen the other party climb, and a third, shorter one to the right. Falling off any of them would be unavoidably bad; I chose the one to the right, which looked shorter and less vertical. I said “hello” to the party of three, who had all rappeled from the fixed picket near the summit, then climbed on toward the crux. The snow was perfect, with my tools sticking easily and securely, as I cruised up toward the first vertical step. With some trepidation about having to downclimb it, I stemmed up the 10-foot vertical section, made easier by previous climbers’ many steps. Above, I traversed right on a steep slope under the summit headwall, switching hands on my tools. The final step was a bit more rotten than the one below, with no solid tool placements on the softer summit plateau. Sticking one marginal tool, I stemmed between one crampon and a gloved hand to top out.
I was already thinking of the downclimb as walked the easy 50 yards to the summit, so I did not stay long. I ate a few sugar cookies, and tried to identify the peaks as I took photos in all directions. To the north were Copa and the Huascarans, which I had been looking at all morning. To the south was neighboring Palcaraju, unfortunately hiding Chinchey and Pucaranra; but the seldom-climbed Huantsan dominated the view in that direction. Two lower peaks to the east were particularly intriguing, sheltering a large icefield in their lee; I later learned that they are probably Perlilla and Copap.
Viewing done, I looked down the various descent options, then started down the way I had come. I reversed my stemming maneuver, then carefully stemmed down the upper crux while daggering my tools, unable to perform a decent swing on near-vertical terrain at chest level. The lower crux was a similarly slow and careful affair, with a final big step to reach safer ground. I followed some kicked steps, at first mistakenly following the rappel route, which went over an open part of the summit bergschrund. I caught my mistake, climbed up and right, then downclimbed the correct way to easy terrain. It had taken me about 40 minutes to descend the summit mushroom, longer than I had taken to ascend.
With the stressful part of the day done, I walked down the rest of the route at a brisk and steady pace, admiring the views to the north and east, and looking for the other party on the glacier below. I made the same downclimb-the-rappel mistake again on the glacier, realizing it sooner. I finally caught the others on their roped walk near where I had seen the tent in the morning, and reached the rocks just a few minutes before them.
From there, I followed one of many lines of cairns through the glacial debris, eventually reaching the trail, where I passed a few people going up and down from the high camp. I returned to my camp about 7.5 hours after I left, again leaving me with an afternoon to read and dry my gear. However, this time my neighbors were around, and proved to be friendly. They turned out to be two guides from Patagonia, one Chilean and the other Australian, who were in the Ishinca valley with lots of food and time to do hard routes. (Many of the other climbers were doing hard things, making me feel like a newbie for doing only moderate standard routes.) They knew the nearby guiding company’s cook, who was leaving that day and giving away food. So instead of dipping into my dwindling supply of tuna and ramen, I had guacamole, breaded and fried cheese sticks, and some mystery peach gelatinous thing. Later, I shared pasta with the Patagonian pair who, thanks to a hired burro, had fresh vegetables and other luxuries. I finally turned in “late” around 7:00 to get some sleep for another early, but much easier, day.