Cordillera fail part 2: Quebradas Cayesh y Quillcayhuanca

Rough map of the area

The forecast was depressingly stable for the foreseeable future: partly cloudy with a chance of snow showers. This did not suit anything ambitious like Artesonraju, Quitaraju, or another try for Huascaran, but I knew I would go crazy sitting around town. I therefore made a plan that would allow more- and less-ambitious alternatives near Huaraz. The peaks around Quebrada Quillcayhuanca range from the challenging Chinchey to the mundane Maparaju. With four nights’ food, I hoped to luck out on the weather and tag at least a few of them. Unfortunately, thanks to bad weather and weak motivation, I merely ended up taking a four-day hike with fifty pounds of training weight on my back.

To Quebrada Cayesh

I was tired of the Pitec tourist collectivo, resenting the 10 Soles I would pay as I hiked over to the gas station to catch it one more time. I expected a long wait for it to fill and depart, so I sat down on the sidewalk next to the empty van, ate lunch, and tried to be patient. Fortunately a group of three French Canadians showed up after only ten or fifteen minutes, an older man and two college kids, either a couple or siblings, and the collectivo driver helpfully arrange for us to split a cab for only 60 Soles round-trip. They got a great deal — 15 Soles apiece round-trip — and I only paid five extra not to wait.

I talked to the driver a bit, then more to the Canadians as we made the familiar winding drive. Then I flashed my pass to the park guard and shouldered the ridiculous pack once more to head up the valley. Where the valleys split, Andavite was already in the clouds by mid-day, so I decided to camp at the head of Quebrada Cayesh and climb the easy Maparaju (and/or Nevado San Juan) the next morning, hopefully getting a good view of the nearby and much more impressive Nevado Cayesh.

Be fruitful and multiply
Other than an arriero with a surprisingly large string of burros, the livestock and I had the valley to ourselves. I found an old sign and a concrete bridge at the turn to the Cayesh Valley, surprising since it seems most people follow the Guapi Pass loop. Unfortunately the livestock continued to accompany me up the broad, gentle valley toward the glacial cirque at its head. One calf even followed me like it expected food.

Don’t drink the water
Because of all the cows, I was eager to find a high and fast water source I would not have to filter. I was pleased to see a violent cascade descending from the direction of Nevado San Juan. Anticipating cool fresh glacier water with perhaps a bit of silt, I dumped out the leftovers in my bladder, filled it, and took a deep gulp, only to almost spit it out. The water tasted like nothing I had ever experienced, unnaturally acidic and almost citrus-y. Hoping it wasn’t poisonous, I dumped out the rest and continued on empty. My filter might stop giardia, but would be useless against chemical contaminants.

Quebrada Cayesh in one picture
The cows continued well past the highest flat part of the valley, but I was too tired and lazy to look for camp spots higher up. The water in the main channel tasted little better than that from the side stream — the streambed’s red rocks had warned me to expect as much — but at least its taste was merely metallic. I filled my bladder, then spent fifteen minutes finding a flat, bivy-sized patch of ground free of fresh manure. A couple of cows watched with stupid curiosity as I set up camp, had some iron-enriched ramen, and crawled into bed. I had carelessly peed only a few feet away, so I was soon joined by a cow slowly eating the freshly-salted grass. The herd kept guard the rest of the night, as I kept my eye on them in the full moon.

Maparaju? Nope…

Head of Cayesh valley
Hoping to beat the weather, I had set my alarm for 4:00, needlessly early for a short, easy climb. Unfortunately it started raining sometime in the night, and continued through my alarm, so I sealed my bivy over the soaked head of my sleeping bag and waited until the rain stopped around 8:00. Things felt wetter than could be accounted for by condensation, and it turned out that my bladder, kept inside my bivy to keep from freezing, had decided to leak about a quart of water. It was sunny to the northwest, but clouds still covered Maparaju — so much for climbing today. I spread my sleeping bag, pad, and bivy over some bushes to dry, had an extra pot of hot coffee and half of my day’s rations to cheer myself up, then packed up and headed for Chinchey’s glacier camp, hoping to maximize my chances of reaching the more interesting summits, or at least to reach sun and warmth.

Tullpacocha
I shortcut the trail junction without much trouble, then joined the semi-popular Guapi Pass trail a bit below its switchbacks. I did not have much information about the approach to base camp below the Chinchey-Pucaranra col, but I knew it started up the lateral moraine north of Laguna Tullpacocha, and I saw a flat-looking spot on my topo map near the glacier around 4750m. I picked a random cow-path, and started away from the switchbacks toward the now cloudy peaks. Here I was surprised to meet my second human since the trailhead, a local who looked something between a shepherd and a trekking guide. I saw that he had a couple of faded tents below, and after we talked for a bit, I think he asked me if I could spare a caramelo. It was a weird request, but I had plenty of food, so I offered him a peanut energy bar instead, which seemed to satisfy him.

I followed cow-paths through the woody brush, passed through a flat field with a couple of horses, then continued up the flatter parts of the moraine as it disappeared into the steep hillside above the lake. When it started drizzling, I sheltered under the last trees, covered my pack with my garbage bag, and contemplated the poor life choices that had led to this place. Fortunately the rain stopped before drowning my motivation, so I shouldered my pack and picked an ascending line across the hillside toward my hoped-for camp.

Lots of side-hilling
I found a couple of cairns, but no trail above where the cows stopped. I climbed a somewhat loose talus slope to get above some cliffs, stumbled through some thigh-high grass tussocks hiding uneven ground, then skittered across loose dirt and scree to reach lower-angle grass on the other side. Here I found some more cairns, and even a bit of a game trail (though I saw no animals), but no sign of recent human traffic. It was rough going with an overnight mountaineering pack, but it felt like my kind of territory.

At least camp is nice
Nearing what I hoped was at least a flat spot, I was delighted to find one of my favorite campsites of the trip so far: a flat, smooth slab 10 yards from a lake, with the jagged end of a glacier just on the other side, and views of the Andavite peaks across the valley. I had just enough time to dry out my things and pack my bag before the sun went behind Pucaranra’s southeast ridge, and the cold forced me to eat my glop and crawl into bed, hoping for better weather.

Chinchey? Nope… and nope

Chinchey from camp

I normally avoid fighting the weather on mountains, but the weather changes quickly in the Cordillera, and the forecasts are not always accurate. With that in mind, I started out around 4:40 despite the clouds, making my way up the moraine from camp by a combination of moonlight and headlamp. This part was as miserable as I expected it to be, stumbling up loose boulders, icy slabs, and loose dirt in mountaineering boots by headlamp.

Lower glacier
I put on crampons and got on the glacier at a flat spot around 4900m, and did most of the long march up the flat section at night, staying near the left side of the glacier and trying to follow ridges to minimize crevasse troubles. Though it is straight and its surface is mostly gray ice, this glacier is sketchier than it appears: the “bare ice” surface is sometimes illusory, the lateral cracks have had time to become hollow underneath, and it is surprisingly deep.

Difficulties to the left
Nearing the headwall between Pucaranra and Chinchey, things did not look good… well, at least as much of “things” as I could see through the clouds. The ridge from the saddle to Pucaranra looked more likely to be rotten rock than snow, and getting to it would be a problem. The broad headwall varied from fresh-looking rockfall on the left, to ice cliffs in the middle, to a complicated snow-covered icefall on the right. I could not see the supposed crux of the route up Chinchey, a west-facing climb to its north ridge, but things did not bode well. The latter seemed like it at least had potential, so I headed that way, carefully postholing up the wind-drifted snow on the safest-looking path. I made a decent effort, but the visibility was only getting worse, so after getting cliffed out a couple of times by gaps invisible from below, I gave up and retraced my steps to camp.

I intended to warm up, pack up, and give up, but the weather cleared, so I spent the rest of the day drying my gear, finishing my book, and enjoying the views from my excellent campsite, with Chinchey taunting me in the sun. Gusty wind kept me slightly chilled, though I got to warm up from time to time chasing down my gear, so when the sun dipped behind Pucaranra around 4:30, I had a hot dinner, set my alarm for 3:30, and went to bed early.

Not much better to the right
Stupidly failing to look at my watch, I only realized around 5:00 AM that I had not heard my alarm. So much for an alpine start. The weather looked a bit better than the day before, but I was not fully motivated as I once again climbed the glacier. This time I tried going up the left-center of the icefall, climbing through the ice steps to reach a snowy ramp on the left that seemed out of range of rockfall. I hiked up a fan of old serac debris, climbed a short vertical step, then traversed under another. At that point I could have climbed some moderate-angle glacial ice to reach another shelf, but the weather was turning worse, and my meager motivation ran out, so I once again returned to camp defeated.

Heading home
The weather continued to deteriorate as I packed up, and I was even snowed upon while sidehilling back to the cow-paths. It was sunny down in the valley, though, for the long, flat walk back through the pastures and along the road to Pitec. I passed a Frenchman (mais bien sur!) doing the Guapi Pass loop, then slowly caught a local carrying a bundle of firewood. The old man proved friendly and, having been a porter, good at talking to gringos like me despite their broken Spanish. A hand injury kept him from working as a porter, but he had a house at the Park boundary, and apparently owned many of the livestock I had seen over the past few days, so he seemed to have a decent life. He was also still nimble for his age, easily clambering over the rock wall next to the gate with the firewood on his back. We shook hands on parting, then I took the tourist bus back to town to think of what I could do that would not involve carrying ridiculous amounts of weight for no good reason.

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