Cordillera fail part 1: Huascaran

Huascaran Norte and Sur from approach


While Peru’s highest peak is not technically difficult, Huascaran Sur requires a lot of effort. From the end of the road in Musho at 10,000′, a steep trail leads to the Don Bosco refugio at about 15,500′, where you can camp or, for about $30, eat and sleep in an Alps-style hut. From there, it is another 6500′ to the summit, about 4500-5000′ of that currently on glacier. Most people use one or two intermediate camps, the first on the lower glacier, and the second near the saddle between the two peaks.

View from Musho

I intended to climb it in a single push from the hut, returning to Huaraz that evening. That last bit might have been overambitious, and a 6500′ day starting at 15,500′ is harder than I anticipated, but my plan was basically correct. As I have written before, “trust the math”: I knew I could climb at about 400m/hr between 5000 and 6000m, and estimated that this would drop closer to 300m/hr above 6000m; both of these numbers were more or less correct, giving a hut-to-summit time of about six hours. Had I avoided a dumb route-finding error on the ascent, started an hour earlier, or had another hour of cooperative weather, things would have gone as planned. As it was, I decided to turn around at 10:30, about 200m short of the summit, because I could see almost nothing in the clouds and my phone battery was running low in the cold. I then spent quite a bit of time downclimbing by GPS, never a pleasant way to spend time on a glacier.

Climbing these high nevados is always a tradeoff for me between warmth and light, and snow stability and weather. With that in mind, I started at 4:00, aiming to do the rock and lower glacier by headlamp, summit at 10:00, and return by early- to mid-afternoon. Wearing an extra layer top and bottom, plus chemical hand- and foot-warmers, I could have comfortably started earlier.

Garganta channel

Route-finding in the dark on the rock was slow, but once on the snow, it was easy to follow the boot-pack by headlamp than in the clouds. Lonnie Thompson’s expedition to take ice cores from the saddle and summit had hired a small army of porters, and their regular trips had beaten in an obvious track. I passed camp one in the dark, and continued through the lower part of la garganta, the crux section passing through a steep channel and below some active seracs. I found a small, easy ice step with a couple of dubious v-thread anchors above it, which I climbed with one tool and a bit of balance.

Garganta icefall

I lost the trail in the partly-cloudy daylight beneath the disturbingly active seracs, then found it again below camp two, occupied by a single tent. Its inhabitants were apparently home — their gear was parked outside — which did not make sense to me at that time of day. I followed crampon tracks and occasional flags in a zig-zag path toward the saddle, recording the track on my phone, then stupidly started right toward the summit too early. I saw that I was well right of the standard route, but wasted about 45 minutes screwing around on the face before retreating to find a flagged route farther up the saddle.

Saddle and Huascaran Norte

I was between two cloud decks, neither of which looked serious, so I still had plenty of time to reach the summit. The boot-pack was less defined above the saddle, and crampon tracks were harder to follow in the flat light than they had been by headlamp. Still, with a few mistakes, shortcuts, and pauses to search for flags, I made decent progress toward the summit. The current route starts near the far side of the saddle, then traverses most of the way back across the face before climbing more directly toward the summit. Quite a bit of it is beneath seracs, but the cool temperatures and clouds worked in my favor to keep them quiet.

Huascaran Norte from Sur

Though I had kept up a decent pace on the upper part of Chopicalqui, I was painfully slow above 20,000′ on Huascaran, stopping every 6-10 steps to catch my breath while going uphill. Still, I was probably doing close to my estimated 300m/hr, or slightly less thanks to route-finding. Unfortunately the clouds had descended, and the cold was quickly draining my phone battery. I was unsure that I could find the highpoint of Huascaran’s broad summit, and slightly unnerved by the occasional crevasses. With about 200 vertical meters and 300-400 horizontal ones to go, I decided that it wasn’t happening that day.

Clouds clearing on lower glacier

Fortunately I had learned from my previous summit whiteout experience, and had left bits of track and waypoints on my phone to follow on the return. Still, the downclimb to the saddle was slow, stressful, and at times error-prone. The two cloud layers had annoyingly merged, meaning I was mostly in clouds until below the garganta. The people in the tent at camp two were awake, and cleared up a couple of questions for me. They had been the bearers of headlamps I had seen above me in the morning, climbing through the seracs at night. Their plan was to hang around camp all day, then start for the summit at 11:00 PM. This seemed like strange timing to me, especially since the next day’s forecast was not great.

Clouds clearing on lower glacier

I finally got below the clouds below the steep part of the garganta, and had an easy walk back to the hut, reaching it by mid-afternoon. I realized at this point that my plan to hike down to Musho and taxi/bus back to Huaraz was unrealistic, but I had little spare food. Fortunately, like most of life’s problems, this one could be solved with money: for 100 Soles ($30), I could have dinner, breakfast, and a bed in the hut, and return the next day. This was about a third of what it would cost in the Alps, and I had never stayed in an Alpine hut before, so it seemed worth it.

Sunset on camp and hut

The four Cordillera huts — below Pisco, Ishinca, Huascaran, and Contrahierbas — were all established by an Italian friar, and are run mostly by Italian volunteers for the benefit of the local poor. The hut keepers were an Italian couple, he a priest at one of the local churches. Dinner was simple but plentiful, and I had time before and after to talk to Thompson and his graduate students. Among other things, I learned: that they were planning to drag a diesel generator to the summit and spend two weeks drilling an ice core; that a core from the saddle showed the glacier to be 180m deep at that point; that the president of Peru had promised them a helicopter to ferry the cores from the hut to a freezer truck below; that The Ohio State University has a respected glaciology department; and that I clearly chose the wrong field in my aborted academic career.

Awesome peak to the north

I slept slightly better in the bunkroom than in a bivy sack, and waking up was much more pleasant with a wood stove to warm my hands. After a leisurely breakfast, I had a pleasant hike down the steep trail to Musho, passing through pine forest, various flowers, and eucalyptus groves that are apparently a local crop. The taxi down to Mancos cost me a very fair 3 Soles, and I was back in Huaraz by early afternoon to recover my duffel and check the endlessly-depressing forecast. All weather models show unsettled weather for the rest of my climbing time, so while I may be able to sneak in some lesser peaks, another shot at Huascaran seems unlikely. Yet another reason to return…

One response to “Cordillera fail part 1: Huascaran

  1. I never liked calling it a fail when the decision to turn around was based on safety. Sleeping in, not researching the route and planning, not getting the right gear are failures. Turning around because going forward looks like death isn’t obtaining the peak, but it’s successful mountaineering in my mind.

    Coincidentally, a Facebook acquaintance of mine was just going for that route in the last few days. One of his pictures showed an ice block bigger than a person that he explained came down the Candalleta gully just a few days before they climbed it. They did all their climbing in the night to avoid the icefall danger on the route. They turned around not far from where you did because they were going to wind up summitting late enough that icefall was a concern on the return. Sketchballs.

    BTW, I’m guessing you already known, but the other guy mentioned Hauscaran is the 4th highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalaya.

    Having to navigate the crevasses by myself in a whiteout woulda been a ‘memorable’ experience. I think I’d prefer two others on a rope with me for that jazz.

    Hopefully weather allows another peak or two while you’re out there. If not, I personally would be happy with the list of peaks you knocked off – particularly for a first visit!

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