Category Archives: South America

Huayhuash trekking

I prefer not to merely dump a pile of photos on the internet, but the Cordillera Huayhuash is worth looking at, and I probably won’t write a detailed trip report. This was the last of my travels in Peru this summer, but I hope to return soon to take care of much unfinished business.

Flery Punta Quest

Parting view of Flery Punta?


I was tired of the continued uncertain weather in the Cordillera Blanca, running out of climbing time, and too single-minded for sport climbing or “cultural experiences” like museums or ruins. I also wanted to do something with Jacob, an international Pole currently living near the northern end of the range. He had mentioned Flery Punta, a supposed peak that is supposedly the second-highest in the dry Cordillera Negra, west of the Blanca across the Rio Santo. There is almost no information on it available online: it has two different names with three spellings (Flery Punta, Carhuacocha, and Qarwaqucha), and different sources even give slightly different locations and elevations. I can find no information on who or what “Flery” is. It seemed like a fine adventure. Jacob had also recently climbed Coñocranra, the Negra’s highest peak, from a local town, and I hoped to do it in a day afterward.

The approach

Cuy who are about to die, salute you!

I left Huaraz at 6:00 in my most crowded collectivo so far, squeezed backward behind the driver’s seat while every other seat was taken and up to four people stood in the aisle (I believe that makes 22 people in one Sprinter). With several detours for road work, the ride to Caraz took about 1h20, mostly spent tolerating hip and knee pain from my position. The Peruvians were mostly shorter than I, but similarly crowded and stoic about it, so I tried to fit in. I eventually found Jacob and his wife at the central plaza and, after a leisurely second breakfast and some shopping, took another collectivo up a sketchy 1.5-lane dirt road to Huaylas.

Huaylas church

It looked like a nice town, with a central square containing the usual flowers and large church, plus a guinea pig statue and a large shrub trimmed to the shape of a rubber duck. Jacob, however, assured me that it was a terrible place, with no decent shops or restaurants, and subsequent wandering convinced me that reality was somewhere in the middle. The plan was to hire a taxi up a road labeled AN-888 as far as possible, then hike more or less southwest from there to Flery Punta’s last known location. In retrospect, it might be better to start from Villa Sucre and Ancoracá.

We tried to convince one of the moto-taxi drivers near the church to take us, but he thought the road was too rough for anything but a beat-up Toyota, and went and found an especially beat-up specimen, driven by an old man who seemed to have only one fully-working eye. He asked for an exorbitant 80 Soles to go at least as far as a supposed village; it was late and there did not seem to be other options in town, so I reluctantly agreed, and Jacob and I, the old man, and the moto-taxi driver all piled in.

Artesonraju (l) and others

Once off the “good” dirt road between Caraz and Huaylas, the man drove his car hard, slowing to crawl over rough patches, then flooring it to get back up to maximum first-gear velocity. I noticed that the “check engine” light was constantly blinking and the temperature gauge was pegged, and got a familiar and bad feeling about the car’s future. Stopping at one turn, the driver popped the hood and the moto-taxi guy asked for a little of Jacob’s drinking water. Steam shot out as he poured the entire bottle into the radiator, and I learned that it had no cap. Oops. As expected, the car ran cooler for a few minutes, then overheated again and stopped running just below the “village,” a small collection of farm houses and fields. We paid the 80 Soles, and just nodded and exchanged glances with the moto-taxi guy as the driver claimed that his car would run fine once back down in town, and even offered to come pick us up in a few days. The short ride was expensive even by American standards, but I figured that fixing a melted engine would cost him a lot more than $28.

Slog toward the crest

We hiked a combination of the road and cow-paths in the general direction of our peak, looking for non-spoiled water sources as we climbed from 3400 to 4600 meters. The cows had done a good job of trampling every seep into a manure-filled bog, but we eventually found one sufficiently protected by brush and rocks. While we filled our water containers shortly after hopping a fence, an old vaquero snuck up behind us and delivered a long warning and speech about a rondo. I thought it was a roundup, but Jacob informed me afterward that some cows had been stolen recently, and the community was out to find the culprit and exact frontier justice. We paid a bit more attention to our surroundings as we continued uphill.

Camp sunset

While Cordillera Negra’s eastern foothills are gentle and curved to hide the range behind them, the high peaks are steep, chossy, and complex. We reached the crest around 4500m, and could finally see one possible Flery Punta, but could not see a direct path through the intervening terrain. Fortunately, an old built-up path headed more or less in the right direction, meandering in and out of side-valleys as it traversed below the jagged ridge. We made it through two of them before finding a flat spot to camp in the third. Our source of water had been thoroughly ruined by cows, but at least it could be sterilized. We watched the sunset on the partly cloud-covered Cordillera Blanca, then shoveled in some hot, manure-enriched dinner.

On to the Flery Puntas

As usual, I spent part of the night awake, and was concerned to see an overcast sky. The day dawned overcast, with clouds seeming to come from both the Amazon to the east and the sea to the west. I was up and ready to hike in the usual half-hour, and after a bit of a fight with Jacob’s weirdly complex ultralight tent, we continued along the old trail around 7:20. It traversed another valley or two, crossed a couple of passes, then headed away from our goal to the northwest.

Best wall we saw

Topographic maps of this area are not detailed enough to pick an obvious path, so after looking at the local terrain, we chose to contour around the southeast side of the ridge toward our goal, following cow-paths between 4600 and 4700m. This was frustrating and slow, but likely the best alternative. After crossing some more side-ridges, we spotted another trail, again frustratingly perpendicular to our route. Following it to a pass, we found graffiti claiming that some area was the property of some woman in 2005, somewhat spoiling the place’s wild feel.

Leaving the trail on a bench just northwest of the ridge, we found some old stone shelters and bits of what might have been an old trail, now maintained by the ever-present cows. Without losing too much elevation, this route passed beneath vaguely Dolomites-like cliffs, near a drip of clean-looking water, and on to the base of the valley north of our potential Flery Puntas. I aimed for a saddle left of the coordinates I had found on Wikipedia, which would lead either to my peak, or Jacob’s another kilometer to the south.

Pass between Flerys

Reaching the pass, I found a view of Laguna Carhuacocha to the south, and surprising cairn. The altimeter read just below 5000 meters, finding my Flery Punta a short distance to the west, Jacob’s to the southwest and apparently lower, and a more imposing tower to the east around coordinates (-8.9543, -77.9559). Mine looked easiest, so we went there first. The summit visible from the pass was clearly higher than the southwest double summit, and lower than another a hundred yards farther west. It started snowing slightly on this first peak, dampening the mood, but we continued along the ridge to the higher western summit. I crossed a short, surprisingly overhanging rock catwalk, and built a cairn on the unmarked highpoint.

Cerro Rocorro from Flery

To the southwest, Cerro Rocarre (5070m according to peakbagger.com) looked clearly higher, as did another peak farther south and the tower east of the pass. Rocarre looked like a far-away slog, while the tower looked interesting and was on the way home. Jacob had had enough, so I left him on the summit, planning to meet near a small lake below. I slid and hopped down sand and talus on the northeast face, then contoured around to the notch left of the tower, where the most likely route seemed to start. I passed another oddly-placed wall, and may have seen a set of old footprints.

Looking down route

I peered over the notch, then retreated a bit to start up a slot right of the ridge before traversing back to the crest, where I found a cairn. Beyond, the route was sustained and often exposed, but probably not harder than fourth class. There was plenty of loose debris, but the underlying rock was generally decent. With a bit of experimentation, I found a path that started left of the ridge, then returned to the crest until reaching a light-colored vertical step.

Squeeze chimney

It seemed like I could make progress up a low fifth class crack, but I instead moved left, finding an awkward step and a squeeze chimney behind a detached column. I removed my pack, passed it through, then thrashed after it to climb some exposed black rock back to the ridge above the step. From there, wandering class 3-4 terrain generally left of the ridge got me to the summit boulders. I built another cairn, took pictures of a small lake to the east, Carhuacocha and a man-made lake to the south, and the first Flery Punta. According to my phone, this peak was between 5114 and 5116 meters high, making it the second-highest summit in the Cordillera Negra. However, Cerro Rocarre and the peak to the south still looked higher.

Blanca from second Flery

I only made a couple of small wrong turns on the descent, and soon met Jacob back at the lake. It seemed clear that our route on the way out had been the least bad, so we retraced our steps to camp. I had hoped that Flery Punta would be a two-day trip, leaving me a day for Coñocranra, but hiking out that day would have involved headlamp and misery. I reconciled myself to another frosty night, and another item on my to-do list should I return to Peru.

Neither of us even thought of calling the taxi driver, so after breakfast, we packed our still-frosty stuff and struck out for Huaylas. We followed the old trail back the way we had come, then shortcut the switchbacks of an abandoned road mysteriously winding up above 4300 meters. Eventually leaving the road, we found faint cow-paths feeding into the more developed ones leading to Huaylas’ uphill suburbs. After something like lunch, I sat in the collectivo to watch the town saint’s statue get paraded around the square to a marching brass arrangement of “Ave Maria,” then rode back to Caraz and Huaraz.

Nevado Rurec

Exciting summit, eh?


After twice carrying lots of gear and camping out, only to be shut down by weather without summiting any peaks, I was done fighting the weather, which continued to be uncharacteristically wet for July in the Cordillera Blanca. Unlike in the North American ranges with which I am familiar, precipitation in the Cordillera comes from the east, so I looked at a map for peaks on the western edge of the range that could be done in a day from Huaraz. Cashan seemed like an option until I saw a photo of someone climbing its summit snow ridge a cheval (yikes!), and Shaqsa looked a bit too far away. Rurec is less a peak than an unimpressive snow dome on Huantsan’s south ridge, but it looked close and non-technical enough to be done in a day using fast-and-light gear. Doing so required a costly early-morning taxi to Janco (or neighboring Jancu), but I went ahead and paid for what was probably my last chance at a peak in the Cordillera Blanca.

Part of the bog

The taxi driver was precisely on time at 4:30, and mostly quiet on the drive up to Janco. When I told him I was headed for Quebrada Rajucolta, he even backtracked a hundred yards and pointed me in the right direction. I started off up a dirt side-road, then continued along the line I had drawn on my map, which I thought followed a trail. Fortunately the terrain was all easy grassland, because the supposed trail either never existed, or was too faint to follow by headlamp. I climbed to a broad saddle as quickly as I could, stopping every few hundred yards to reorient via my phone.

Reservoir and flat valley

It was finally light enough to turn off my headlamp near some stone huts, just in time to soak my feet, already damp from the frosty grass, in a disguised bog. I wrung as much water as I could out of my socks and insoles, and resigned myself to a day of cold and sore feet. A stock trail finally appeared on the other side of the saddle, and I was able to jog most of the way down to the Rajucolta road. The road was good enough for one of Peru’s skilled taxi drivers in a beat-up Toyota, but I shudder at what it might have cost to get there so early.

Huantsan from valley

I once again climbed around the park gate, checked out the regional park sign, then made a decent effort at jogging up the nearly-flat valley bottom toward the hut and lake at its head. I had plenty of time to admire Huantsan’s 6000-foot glaciated west face as I made my way through the cows on the flat valley bottom. From the lake a bit above 14,000′, I had another 4600′ to climb on an unknown kind of trail, which turned out to be a maze of cow-paths with an occasional cairn.

Climbing the moraine

The cows had given up below the first lake, so the trail disappeared, and I lost the cairns, but I had a map, and all the terrain was easy grass and rock. I finally saw the just below the lake, and stopped to eat and warm my feet as I watched some orange-vested workers inspecting the dam below. The best route was obvious above the lake — follow the old lateral moraine to the ridge northeast of the summit — so I had no trouble regaining the line of cairns. They disappeared above the moraine crest, but the ridge and neighboring glacial slabs were all easy class 2-3 scrambling.

Approaching choss peak

The line I had sketched on the map stayed right of the big glacier below Huantsan’s southwest face, following a rock and then glacier ridge to Rurec’s summit. I eventually reached the glacier near 5400m, and found it still solid enough for easy crampon walking, with a variable cornice on the right, and the occasional crevasse to keep me alert. I made my way toward a rocky arete that I thought was near the summit, watching the clouds advance and retreat from Huantsan’s east side.

Rurec summit walk

The rock turned out to be an independent chossy summit, best bypassed to the left with a bit of elevation loss. Rounding this obstacle, I saw that my planned ridge route was a bit more complicated than expected, and that clouds intermittently engulfed the summit. A path straight across the glacier would have been more direct, but it seemed to stay on the ridge, where the crevasses were fewer and more visible. This involved a couple of sketchy sections where the steep left side and corniced right side were both steep. At one point I had to traverse right around a rotting snow bridge, climb a short vertical snow step to regain the crest, then balance-beam along a knife-edge to easier ground.

Cornices along route

The summit itself was an anti-climax, being both round and covered in clouds. I found what seemed like the high point for a few seconds, then turned back, worried that the clouds would complicate my return. Surprisingly, though, they stayed east of the crest until hours later, so I had an easy time following my crampon tracks back along the ridge and down to the rocks. Stopping below the moraine for water, I wisely tasted the stream before filling my bladder, and found it every bit as disgustingly metallic as the Cayesh. I preferred to go thirsty.

Clouds staying east of Huantsan

I had an easier time following the cairns on the way down, though the only footprints I saw were my own, and was soon back on the road. The valley is flat enough that jogging down was not much easier than up, but I easily passed a few hikers coming from a taxi waiting at the park gate. One of the cleaner streams from the side tasted mineral-free, so I was finally able to get enough water for a comfortable return.

Transportation options seemed iffy on the Janco road, and I did not want to run all the way back to Huaraz, so I added another three miles going in and out of the Shallup and Quillcayhuanca drainages to reach the terrible and familiar Pitec collectivo. I had worried about missing the last ride down, but my efforts at speed were wasted, as I spent about an hour waiting in the parked van before it finally took off. At least I was sheltered from the downpour, and got in some Spanish practice talking to the young fee collector, who was friendly but spoke no English. Fortunately I had leftovers in the fridge, because I did not reach the hostel until almost 6:00, with just enough energy to shovel food in my mouth, wash most of the dirt off, and stare half-dazed at my computer for a bit before going to sleep.

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.

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…

Yanapaccha

Yanupaccha west face


At under 5500m, Yanapaccha is insignificant compared to its 6000m or higher neighbors. However, its west face is a moderate technical climb recommended by the German climbers I had met at the hostel, and it is in the same valley as Chopicalqui, so it made sense to do it in the same trip. With a taxi, the approach is an easy hike along a winding trail from the highest switchback on Llanganuco Pass. Without one, I added a 1500-foot, four-mile road hike from the Chopicalqui trailhead.

Base camp and summit

Reaching the base camp near a small lake, I was disappointed to find not just several large guided groups, but also two cows, busily polluting the camp sites and water source. I had just enough time before the sun went down to set up my tent and talk briefly to an American and Belgian pair of guided climbers who had returned from the summit that day. They said it had taken them four hours, from 4:00 to 8:00 AM, and had been unpleasantly cold the whole way. With this information and the fact that it is only 600m from camp to summit, I estimated that the climb would take me at most two hours, and decided to start at 6:00. I suppose I could have started later, but I also needed to hike and get rides all the way back to Huaraz later in the day.

Yanapaccha from approach

After a short hike through the moraine, I reached the right side of the glacier, geared up, and climbed an awkward pitch of gritty ice to reach the snowy surface. Several tracks from the edge converged to a well-traveled boot-pack, which I followed past a couple of crevasses on the tame lower glacier. I could see the bootpack heading up to a bergschrund then left to Yanapaccha’s north ridge, and a party of two making its way more directly up the face toward the summit.

The second of the party I saw was about halfway to his belayer when I reached the point where they had left the standard route. The snow was in good condition, and their way looked more interesting, so I took out my second tool and followed. The first part was easy going, and I could crawl up gripping each tool near the head. Where the route traversed left below the summit cornice, an old avalanche had scoured away the softer snow, leaving the harder underlying snow/ice. Here I felt more comfortable swinging my tools, as usual swinging and gripping too hard at first.

Miguel topping out and Chacraraju

I caught up to the pair just as the leader was taking off to the right on the second pitch. Rather than following him and dealing with his rope and the snow he knocked down, I headed to his left, aiming for a small ledge under the cornice. The surface was messier here, with good solid ice in places, and rotten snow in others, forcing me to dig or kick multiple times to feel secure. The snow right under the cornice was worse, forcing me to rely more on my feet than my dubious tool placements. However this section was short, and I soon found a place to rest crouched under the cornice. From there, I traversed right and finished on the ridge just below the summit.

Not a bad place to be

Waving to the guide, I hiked to the top, layered up, and enjoyed my first sun of the day. It was far less windy than the day before, so I had plenty of time to eat, enjoy the familiar views, and watch the other two top out. The guide introduced himself as Miguel, and I talked to him and his Japanese client a bit and traded picture duty before heading down the ridge to the standard route. I found one steep pitch that I downclimbed facing in, but the rest could be side- or plunge-stepped using the existing staircase. I was glad I had chosen the harder variation, as climbing it would have been routine.

Descending standard route

I met the American and Belgian at the base of the glacier, doing some practice ice climbing before hiking out to the road, and spoke a bit before returning to camp to filter more cold water (ugh, hands…) and pack up. I ended up hanging out with the ice climbing pair for a bit, then having some coffee with Miguel and his client, before finally being sent off with a cheese sandwich from their cook. Climbing popular peaks does have its advantages.

Trail back to road

The other guide had mentioned the possibility of a ride, but when I reached the road, I found that there was only room for the four of them (two clients, one guide, and one porter) plus gear in the beaten-up taxi. Fortunately, I only had to wait about fifteen minutes before another taxi came down the pass, returning from dropping some people off for the Santa Cruz trek. I stupidly got in without asking how much it would cost, and worried about getting quoted a tourist price of 100 Soles or more. The driver was friendly, talking about the mountains and pointing out the Sierra Andina taproom, home of Ancash’s only craft beer. Prepared to overpay, I didn’t understand at first when he only charged me 10 Soles ($3) for the hour-long ride down a horrible road. I happily squeezed into a collectivo and tried to nap on the slow ride back to Huaraz.

Chopicalqui

Descending from Pisco toward Chopicalqui


Chopicalqui is the easiest of the 6000m peaks around the Llanganuco Valley, and would be my first peak over 20,000′. As with many high Peruvian peaks, the standard route’s difficulty can vary greatly from year to year due to the ever-changing glaciers. I knew that Chopicalqui was being guided, however, so the route could not be too hard this season.

First attempt

The Huascarans

I packed up below the Pisco hut, then hiked back down to the road at the Laguna 69 trailhead, hoping I could catch a cheap ride to the Chopicalqui trailhead a short distance up the pass. There was a decent tourist crowd at the trailhead, along with some buses and taxis, but the one taxi driver who asked me where I was headed wanted 25 Soles to drive all of 5 kilometers up the road. I was incredulous — five would have been a reasonable price, and I might have paid ten, but it seemed like less work to just walk than to try bargaining him down to something reasonable.

With a couple of shortcut trails, it was about forty minutes and far less than five kilometers to the other trailhead. There was a minibus parked at the side of the road, and I could see a small city of orange tents up at moraine camp, giving me hope that the climb would be a simple matter of following a bootpack. I had intended to start from base camp as usual, but Chopicalqui’s base camp is particularly low and far away, and turned out to be a swampy meadow populated by a mixture of arrieros, burros, and cows. I did not relish camping there, and had plenty of daylight left, so I continued on the trail up the old lateral moraines toward high camp, planning to stop at the next flat spot with a decent water source.

Sunset at Chopi camp

Unfortunately, despite there being large glaciers above me, I found no suitable spots as I neared the climb to the high camp, where I had read that there was no easy water. I dropped my pack, grabbed my bladder, and wasted about twenty minutes scrambling over moraines to reach a decent water source in the valley above base camp. Returning from that mission, I was surprised by another solo climber, a Peruvian trekking guide hoping to climb the peak on his three days off. He had old but good equipment — far better than what I had seen guiding companies renting out — and was a strong hiker, so we talked in clumsy Spanish for awhile before I took off to set up camp before dark. It was crowded, but I managed to find a bivy-sized flat spot after a few minutes’ search.

Chopicalqui’s moraine camp is a spectacular place to hang out, with the sun rising on the Huandoys and setting on Chopicalqui’s glaciated west face. After baking in the sun all afternoon, the face lets loose regular serac-falls into the early evening. I watched the glacier slowly disintegrate as I set up my bivy and ate my ramen, then set my alarm for 5:30 and tried to sleep.

Huandoys from Chopi camp

I had chosen my place at the far end of the campsite to avoid the expected mass departure of the guided groups at their usual senselessly-early time. Lying half awake around 4:00 AM, I was surprised to see neither commotion among the tents nor headlamps on the glacier. Curious… Figuring that I would take between four and five hours on the climb, I waited until the unreasonably late hour of 6:30 to finally start out by myself.

Huandoys, Piscos, Chacraraju

I climbed up some unpleasant and steep moraine, then side-hilled to the right side of the glacier, where a short pitch of steep, gritty ice got me to the gentler surface. I followed a track from the day before to a lone tent at a flat spot on the glacier, then followed fresh tracks to an old tent platform, passing the people who had made them along the way, clearly descending after having failed to summit. Their tracks continued toward some complicated-looking crevasses, so I took a more obvious line to the left, gaining a ridge toward the center of the glacier, then joining another old track. Just below the ridge, I again left the main track to the left, climbing a short steeper section to reach another safe hump leading to the ridge.

Spindrift off Chopi

It was windy, but not too unpleasant so late in the morning. However, the snow on the ridge was crusty sugar ankle to occasionally knee-deep. These already annoying conditions were worse above 18,000′, so it was depressingly slow slogging up the ridge, flailing back and forth looking for the old boot track, or at least more solid spots. I eventually found the old track, where my pace improved, but I was again delayed re-routing around a couple of snow bridges that looked less than trustworthy.

Wind and powder on first attempt

I finally reached a sheltered spot around 6000m at the base of the ridge’s crux, and considered my options. With the difficult snow conditions, it had taken me an hour to climb a mere 200 vertical meters; I would take another two hours to summit at that rate, and it was already 10:00. I had plenty of food in camp, so I turned around with very little reluctance, easily plunging down my track toward moraine camp. Along the way, I finally figured out what the guided groups were doing: after a late start, they were climbing a few hundred meters to a glacier camp for their summit bids. This was probably not the best time of day for them to be crossing snow bridges wearing heavy packs, but it gave me extra confidence in the boot-pack. Some asked about the snow conditions up high, and I told them what I had found, hoping they would take it upon themselves to make me a trail in the morning.

Herd headed for glacier camp

One busybody guide scolded me in passing, first in Spanish then in English, about “free soloing” glaciated peaks. I made a half-hearted attempt to explain that I knew what I was doing, then gave up and moved on. I wondered how many of the clients had practiced catching a crevasse fall or setting up an anchor and pulley system, and how many of the groups of two were just suicide pacts with extra weight, ultimately concluding that, as in religion and American politics, argument was pointless.

I made it back to camp around lunch, finding an easy source of silty glacier melt a short distance off-trail, then sat around for the afternoon reading about Gertrude Bell and watching the next wave of clients make their slow way up the moraine. I vowed to make a more reasonable attempt this time, planning to start around 5:00 and expecting to summit between 9:00 and 10:00.

Second attempt

Dawn from the glacier

Waking to my 4:30 alarm, I was baffled to see two headlamps on the ridge already above 6000m. Summiting in the dark makes little sense, and even less on a southwest-facing route that does not even see sun until around 10:00 AM. Grateful for their efforts at packing in the route, I hiked the moraine and was a short distance up the glacier by the end of headlamp time. The small lower and larger upper glacier camps were of course empty as I passed, and I could see some figures making their way slowly up and down the ridge above.

Sunrise on Huascarans

I passed the 4:30 headlamp group just at the ridge, and asked about their attempt. Sadly, their ridiculously early start had led to them being turned around by the cold shortly below the summit. Cold can be just as difficult and dangerous as softening snow, and navigating a crevassed ridge by headlamp is slow and error-prone. I was somewhat regretting my own “early” start, wiggling my toes in my boots as I continued up the shadowed ridge.

Glacier city

I began passing descending guided groups near where I had stopped the day before. The route above was not difficult now, but the knee-deep trench on some steep sections testified to heroic trail-breaking work by the earlier parties. I finally reached the sun at a plateau just below the summit, and stopped out of the wind to eat a bit and warm my feet. The final route to the summit headed to the right around the summit mushroom, then up its somewhat steep side. I put on all my clothes and waited in a sunny and sheltered spot, talking to a climber from Tenerife while a group of “too many” on a rope slowly downclimbed this final slope.

Huascarans from summit

When the route finally cleared, I stepped into the wind and dashed for the summit, reaching it in 3h45 from camp, about as expected. The views were spectacular, but it was bitterly cold in the wind, so I spent only about a minute on top before scurrying back down to shelter. I worked my way through the groups on my way down, passing them to one side or waiting as they belayed from a picket above a crevasse where there was only one safe path. One of the guides congratulated me on my climb, and I thanked him for his effort plowing the route.

Groups nearing sun on descent

I stopped to talk to the trekking guide at glacier camp, and again to the early headlamp team, who turned out to be from New Mexico and Colorado. I talked to one of the camp cooks a bit, then had lunch and packed up camp as the others trickled in. I talked some more with the American team as their cook and porters took care of them. It looked comfortable, and was probably not expensive, but I would feel uncomfortable having “mountain servants.” I did not hesitate, though, when the cook offered me a bowl of soup, then chicken and rice.

Chacraraju and buried glacier

On my way down, I passed more porters carrying burlap sacks and other people’s technical gear to the non-burro-accessible camp, and a slightly larger number of climbers. I also saw my second woman in two and a half days on the mountain, out of fifty or more people total. While this ratio was more extreme than usual, it highlighted the fact that mountaineering is an overwhelmingly (white) male sport, with “the help” in this case being poor brown people.

Chopi, the Huascarans, and crazy road

I talked briefly to the trekking guide again at the road, waiting for a collectivo to take him back to town and to work the next day, then started hiking up the switchbacked road toward the insane Llanganuco Pass. I might have paid 25 Soles for a ride if offered, but there were no cars headed uphill in the afternoon. I grimly counted out the well-marked kilometers, occasionally trying to shortcut a switchback to save time. I finally reached a Huascaran Park sign at the highest switchback, and found a well-established and apparently recent stock trail contouring around the hillside toward Yanapaccha. I had been up and hiking for most of twelve hours and climbed over 6500 vertical feet by the time I finally reached my next base camp, glad that the next day’s short climb would be the last on this miniature “expedition.”

Pisco Oeste

Pisco from camp


Pisco Oeste is another Peruvian warmup peak, made even friendlier by having a European-style hut at 4650m, just 1100m from its summit. It would be a strange choice of peaks after Tocllaraju, being both lower and less technical, were it not for two redeeming features: close-up views of the dramatic and too-hard-for-me Huandoys; and sharing a valley approach with Chopicalqui, a moderate 20,000′ peak on my to-do list. Since most peaks in the Cordillera require a day of collectivo-riding and approach hiking beforehand, and often an in-town recovery day afterward, I try to amortize this “wasted time” over several summits.

Llanganuco panorama

Getting to Pisco was pleasantly cheap, despite paying tourist rates for the last leg. I took a bus to Yungay, then got out at the paradero (bus terminal) to figure out how to reach cebollapampa, the trailhead for both Pisco and the popular Laguna 69 hike. I sat on an immobile collectivo for a bit, then met a young American couple who were trying to get to the Santa Cruz trek and had been waiting much longer. They offered to split a taxi, but were reluctant to pay what he asked. Not wanting to deal with that situation, I jumped at the chance to squeezed into another bus along with a dozen locals and some burlap bags of produce, all bound for somewhere on the other side of the Llanganuco Pass. They tolerated and took good care of my overstuffed pack, one asking about my water bladder hose, then carefully tucking away the drinking valve.

Sunrise on Huandoys

The road to the Llanganuco Lakes starts out decent, then turns to gradually deteriorating dirt as it climbs through farms and smaller communities. The valley’s entrance is an improbably deep and sharp notch, with granite cliffs rising a thousand feet or more from both sides. The north side in particular would be a rock climbing destination were it not for some evil plant that somehow manages to grow on the near-vertical surface, fed by runoff from the glaciers above.

Laguna 69 es muy turistica

The lakes, fed by the surrounding glaciated peaks, are the expected brilliant blue, and seem to be a popular local tourist destination. However, the intermittent rain on the day I approached limited the crowds to only a bus or two and a few dismal picnickers. The bus stopped at the Laguna 69 “trailhead,” a wide spot in the road where some buses and taxis were parked, and I paused to have a snack and debate whether or not to put on my “rain gear,” i.e. “lawn-sized garbage bag.” I eventually started without, then had to stop about ten minutes later when it began drizzling. I huddled under the eaves an abandoned outhouse and, while curious cows investigated, cut a face-hole and figured out how to fit the thing over both myself and my pack. As always, it worked admirably, keeping both my gear and my upper body dry for less than a dollar.

Pisco hut

With camping and mountaineering gear, plus five days of food, the wet 2000-foot climb to the campground below the hut felt endless. Reaching the dismal field, I hopped across the wet parts, stashed my pack under the garbage bag on a dung-free piece of ground, and headed into the hut to be warm and dry for a few hours. I was expecting something primitive, but instead found a hut worthy of the Alps, and a small crowd of mountaineers watching “Ocean’s 11” on a projector. I paid Alpine prices for some hot chocolate (10 Soles!), watched the last half-hour of the movie, then sat to read as the others talked amongst themselves in various languages. The hut even had a nylon-string guitar, which I tried playing for a few minutes before heading back outside near dark to set up camp and “enjoy” my ramen and canned tuna.

Huandoys from camp

It started snowing soon after dinner, and continued on and off through the night. My gear stayed mostly dry under the garbage bag while I miserably managed the condensation in my zipped-up bivy. I stupidly failed to keep my water bladder inside with me, so while there was enough liquid water for breakfast, it would be awhile before I could use the drinking hose. Given the conditions and the easy climb, I felt no need to hurry in the morning, huddling in my bag for awhile before beginning the cold weather morning dash: (1) loosen mummy bag and put on hat; (2) unzip further, extract upper body, and put on all layers stuffed in my stuff-sack “pillow”; (3) start stove to boil water (complicated by the cold and snow); (4) shove gloves and pants into sleeping bag to warm up; (5) add oatmeal and drink resulting glop while using pot to keep hands warm; (6) get out of sleeping bag, put on warm pants and cold boots, and tie laces bare-handed before hands freeze; (7) put on warm gloves and pack, and start moving before warm oatmeal wears off.

Chopicalqui across morainal hell

I started out along the obvious trail up the moraine, then quickly realized that Pisco’s approach requires a truly miserable amount of loose boulder-hopping across the former path of the shrunken Huandoy glacier. I descended the helpful chain down the lateral moraine, then followed cairns and faint bits of path toward the saddle west of the peak. Losing the path at some point below Laguna Matacocha, I did some desperate moraine-scrabbling to gain the other lateral moraine, which was probably the day’s technical crux. Once on the trail again, I made better progress, catching and passing a German family near the glacier’s toe. I talked to them a bit as we geared up, learning that the parents had visited the region twenty years earlier, then left them to follow the helpful boot-pack toward the ridge.

Trail crew and Huandoys

Other than a couple of steeper steps requiring a bit of front-pointing, the climb was mostly a matter of walking on snow and not stepping in obvious holes. The clouds were broken enough on the ascent to give dramatic views of the Huandoys behind me, and various unfamiliar peaks to the north and east. The dusting of snow at camp had been deeper up high, making me grateful for the group ahead breaking trail. I caught them 100 yards from the summit, passing to slog through the last bit of fresh powder. We had intermittent views of the much more dramatic Pisco Este and Chacraraju to one side and Huandoy to the other. It was warm enough to sit and talk long enough to learn that I had been following two Spaniards and a Frenchman, and to thank the latter for breaking trail.

The return to the saddle was an unpleasant walk through uniformly gray-white clouds and snow, squinting to find the crampon track where there was no fresh snow. I made a mental note to record a GPS track on future cloudy days. I met the German family about 1000 feet below the summit, still on their way up and seeming unconcerned by the conditions. (My instinct not to give unsolicited advice again proved correct, as it cleared later in the day.) I returned to the hut a bit before lunch, giving me time to grab more free water and learn some history before heading to the next trailhead. The Ishinca, Pisco, and Huascaran huts were all conceived by an Italian friar or priest, and are run by (often Italian) volunteers to benefit the local community. This explained the Italian Alpine Club flags in the dining room and the Alpine style, and made me feel that overpaying for hot chocolate at least went to a good cause.

Ishinca

Ishinca and its Laguna


Ishinca is a relatively short and easy peak, dwarfed by its much taller and more challenging neighbor Ranrapalca. I had initially planned to climb it before Tocllaraju, but combining it with the hike out would save me a day. I therefore started out at 5:00 again, taking the well-used trail toward the hut near Laguna Ishinca, a large morainal lake with a concrete overflow chute. As I made the dawn climb, I met a couple of porters cutting the switchbacks at a near-run on their way down, one carrying a large blue plastic cooler strapped to his back.

Black-faced gull

As recommended by a guide the previous day, I took the “isquierda” (left or northwest ridge) route, which was supposed to have less morainal debris and be slightly more challenging. As I crossed some streamlets toward the main path, I watched another group getting a sensibly but unusually late start, and a black-faced gull-like bird swimming around the lake. I slowly passed the others on the climb to the glacier, then left them at the crampon transition, as they also had to switch to the boots they were carrying.

Upper crevasses

The route started out on crunchy bare ice, then made a long sidehill toward the broad shoulder around 5200m north of Ishinca’s summit. There were a couple of crevasses, but it was mostly straightforward, even if a slip would lead to an unpleasant slide. Things were a bit more complicated above the shoulder, with a crevasse maze between me and the upper slopes. I stopped in the sun to have a snack, look for the path, and admire Palcaraju’s intimidating south face behind me.

Ice pinnacle

The snow was more suncupped than elsewhere, hiding the first part of the bootpack, but I took what seemed like the most reasonable line more or less directly toward the summit, and soon found tracks weaving through the obstacles. I passed a couple of crevasses and a cool ice pinnacle, and soon found myself on the open slopes leading to the summit. After struggling above 5000m on previous climbs, I was finally feeling fast-ish until the final steeper section, reaching the summit about three hours from base camp.

Ranrapalca’s NE and N faces

Ishinca itself is not particularly impressive, but its summit has wonderful views of its more striking neighbors. I spent about twenty minutes absorbing them on a sunny, windless day, sitting on my crampon bag and eating a sandwich as the other climbers made their way through the crevasses below. I finally turned to descend, climbing through a break in the summit cornice and down a short steep pitch to the broad southwest glacier. From there it was an easy walk to the glacier’s toe. Along the way I took some beta photos of Ranrapalca for the Patagonians, who were planning to climb its north face and descend its northeast ridge. The face looked better than it had from Tocllaraju, with only a small rock-band and a fairly gentle snow-cap at the top. The ridge, however, looked like a bit of a nightmare, a mixture of snow, bare ice, and rotten rock that would be a pain to downclimb or rappel.

More peaks to the south

The glacier’s retreat has left the usual disaster of loose blocks, sand, and buried ice, but there was fortunately a decent climbers’ trail on the west side above Laguna Ishinca. I followed it quickly to the junction, coming in the derecha (right) side, glad to have done the loop in this direction, and took some of the porter shortcuts on my way back to camp.

Crags at the mouth of Ishinca valley

The Patagonians were preparing for their more serious climb, and gladly looked through my photos as I ate my last ramen and tuna. A cow had eaten about a quarter of their food overnight, so I gave them what little I had left, then packed up for the easy walk down-valley to where I hoped to find a taxi. The guard weirdly checked my pass on the way out (as if I had snuck in from a neighboring valley?), and I had to stand aside for numerous burro trains, but the hike went quickly.

I reached the worryingly-empty taxi lot by early afternoon, but fortunately had to wait only about ten minutes before one of the ubiquitous run-down Toyota station wagons showed up. The driver was waiting for another hiker, but agreed to take me down alone after only about ten minutes. As usual, the car filled with locals on the way down, most of whom did not have to pay. This driver was a kid who was less friendly than the older man who had taken me up, somehow managing to talk constantly on his cell phone and drink a soda while driving stick down a rough 1.5-lane dirt road and managing oncoming traffic. He also charged me ten Soles versus five for the ride up, despite using much less gas and taking other passengers. I protested a bit, then just shrugged and paid the $3, happy to be getting back to Huaraz in time to relax and find a decent dinner.

Tocllaraju

Sunset on Tocllaraju


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.

Shadow of Tocllaraju across the way

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.

Starting up the glacier

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.

Looking up the entire ridge

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.

Tocllaraju summit mushroom

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.

Summit mushroom with climbers descending

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.

Laguna Pacliashcoca, east of Tocllaraju

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.

Don’t fall

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.

Almost off the glacier

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.