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.

Urus Este

Base camp area


I had waited out some bad weather with dayhikes and trail runs, and was impatient to get into the mountains. My first planned objective was the popular Ishinca Valley, where I could efficiently tag three summits from a single base camp. The easiest of these was Urus Este, a popular acclimatization peak of around 5400m with almost no glacier travel. It was not a particularly interesting climb, and I had already been higher on several occasions, so climbing it was probably unnecessary, but since I was already in the area, I figured “why not?”

Huascaran from trailhead

Getting to the valley was easy: a 2.50 Sol bus took me to the bridge in Paltay, where taxi drivers were waiting to take me up to Pashpa, one of the trailheads for the Ishinca Refuge (the other is Collon). I was surprised that the ride up the rough dirt road cost only 5 Sol, probably less than the cost of gas, and that there had been a running race there the day before. The driver let me out, pointed me in the obvious direction, then waited for a return fare.

Entering Ishinca valley

The approach from Paltay seems preferable to that from Collon, because it follows the shadier north side of the valley. Both trails see much traffic from the mules supplying both the refugio and many of the campers visiting the Ishinca valley, and are therefore beaten into the dusty manure trenches familiar to anyone who has hiked in the Sierra Nevada. However, once the trail passes into the craggy valley, it enters an unusually mossy and dense forest, making the middle part of the walk pleasant. The last part is high enough to be cool in the afternoon, and the views of Tocllaraju and Palcaraju are a welcome distraction.

Sunset on Tocllaraju

I found a camp spot without too much manure on the sunny south side of the valley, briefly checked out the refugio (45 Sol for a bed, more with food), then prepared my pack for the next day, ate my nutritionally adequate ramen plus canned tuna in oil, and settled in for the extra-long night. Not only are nights a full twelve hours here near the equator, but the sun sets at the head of the sharp west-facing valley around 4:30, and doesn’t rise until almost 8:00.

Trail toward Urus

Sleeping off and on, I saw some headlamps making their way up the Urus trail around 3:00 AM, which seemed absurd for a south-facing approach to an easy peak, then tried to sleep until a bit after 6:00, finally starting up around 6:45. The trail heads nearly straight up the hillside from near the refugio, eventually following the lateral moraine of the shrunken Urus Este glacier. Above that, one can either continue straight and cross the remaining glacier, or bear right and avoid all but a short snowfield.

Laguna Akilpo, Tocllaraju, Palcaraju

I went right on the way up, finally using the crampons and axe I had brought for the short snow pitch before stashing them at the base of the summit rocks. It looked like I could have stayed on rock all the way by following the ridge between the two routes, but I wanted to make use of the gear I had brought. I was feeling slow from the altitude, but with some panting and a bit of third class, I soon reached the summit.

Other Urus peaks

I had hoped to continue on to the other, higher Urus peaks, but a quick glance at the terrain showed me that this would not be happening. The central and western peaks are separated from the popular east by a sharp, rotten-looking ridge and some remnants of glacier, and the central peak looks difficult from all directions. I settled for doing the usual tourist thing, eating an avocado, cheese, and chorizo sandwich while taking in the views of Tocllaraju, Ranrapalca, and the puny-looking Ishinca before heading down.

I took the glacier route on the descent, front-pointing down a steep ramp before side-stepping down to the bottom of the ice. I waved to an Italian couple as I took off my crampons, then clomped down the trail as quickly as possible, mentioning the right-hand route to a French party who had been turned back by the glacier the day before. I was back at camp before noon, with plenty of time to dry out my gear, have lunch, read, and talk to an American couple backpacking a loop up the Ishinca valley and down the much-less-frequented Akilpa. The sun set all too soon, and I quickly packed for the next day, ate more ramen and tuna, and crawled into my bag for eleven hours of trying to sleep.

Vallunaraju

Proper mountaineering gear is important


With the forecast calling for a few days of rain and snow, I was looking for a one-day ascent from the Huaraz. I had originally expected to take 2-3 days for Vallunaraju, a popular warmup peak near town, but after doing the math, I realized that I should be able to do it in a day from town if I could use my fast-and-light gear. Two fellow climbers at the hostel, Andi and Linus, assured me that front points and ice tools would be overkill, so I decided to give it a shot.

Oschapalca and Ranrapalca from road

I woke a bit before my 3:20 alarm, and was out the door around 3:50, jogging and walking through the streets of Huaraz, my daypack slightly overloaded with an axe, running shoe crampons, and most of my remaining sugar-roasted peanuts. I knew the start of the route from a previous outing to Laguna Churup, including the locations of the most aggressive dogs. My headlamp seemed to dismay them, so they were less intimidating at night. Perhaps the cold slowed them, too; I was wearing my mitts and everything but my down jacket, which made me concerned about temperatures up high.

Cow-blocking squeeze

I found a gate a short distance beyond, easily bypassed via a pile of rocks to its left, then took another shortcut trail to eliminate a long, low-angle switchback. I followed the road from there, watching the sun rise on the other side of Ranrapalca. I eventually reached the direct approach to the standard moraine camp, marked by a brown-pained pole, and took off almost straight uphill on a well-defined use trail. The first part was a cow-path, but a squeeze through a cliff band kept the cows from wandering onto the upper slopes.

Approaching base of glacier

I saw one person when I passed the camp a bit after 8:00, but everyone else had unsurprisingly left for the summit hours before. It was comfortable climbing in the sun, but I was glad to have walked from town instead of shivering in my bivy near 5000m. The glacier’s retreat had left hundreds of feet of cliffy slabs to cross, but other had helpfully left me a dense line of cairns. Finally reaching the glacier, I found another, colder campsite and two people messing with a rope, and a well-traveled boot-pack reminiscent of the Alps. There would be no glacial route-finding today.

Early guided party

With crampons attached and axe tucked behind my pack, I started up the path, wiggling my toes to keep them warm in my frost-soaked shoes. The first party I met was, unsurprisingly, guided. They had probably started from the moraine camp at some unholy hour and summited around sunrise, and were now descending still wrapped in down. The guide gave me a bit of a dirty look in my running shoes, hoodie, and worn windbreaker, but said nothing as we crossed paths.

Party descending below summit

The glacier was impressively broken, but the path was already clear and never treacherous. Old ski- and crampon-tracks suggested that the surface had been powder or slush recently, but it remained solid for me; I could have slept in more. It was a long hike from the glacier’s toe to the steeper slopes near the summit, giving me plenty of time to enjoy the view across the western glacier to Huascaran. There were a couple of steeper pitches where I took out my axe for security, but I mostly kept it stashed behind my pack. My feet were cold but bearable, while the rest of me was comfortable with my hoodie and windbreaker half-zipped. With plastic bags outside my socks, I would have been completely comfortable.

Ocshapalca and Ranrapalca

I saw a group of four skylined against the summit ridge, then again traversing the glacier below the final cornice. One commented that I was moving quickly, and I thought I might catch them on the descent (I did not). Popping out onto the summit ridge, I was once again struck by Ocshapalca’s terrifying summit ridge. The ridge was slightly exposed, but with well-worn steps in the snow, it was an easy walk to the summit. It was also surprisingly calm and warm, so I took my time sitting around admiring the views without needing to put on my puffy jacket. In addition to nearby Ranrapalca, I could see 6000m peaks from Huascaran in the north, to Huantsan standing alone to the south. I also noticed the clouds pooled on the east side of the range, presaging the next few days’ rain and snow.

Starting down summit ridge

I could have stayed longer, as the temperatures were pleasant and the snow on the glacier remained hard, but I spent only about fifteen minutes before starting the descent. I was a bit cautious on a couple of the steeper sections, but mostly fast-walked or jogged in my crampons. I did not quite manage to catch the group of four, but did see one of its members starting down the rock as I reached the glacier’s toe. I grabbed a couple liters of clean water just below the glacier, shoved everything but my t-shirt into my pack, then followed the cairns back to camp.

The tents were a bit more lively, with one occupant asking how long I had taken to summit (just under 6 hours) and what I was training for. I passed a few more parties on my way down to the road, all of whom I pitied: one guy carrying a rope lots of gear; three people hiking up in double boots; and a couple hiking down carrying their boots and overnight gear. The man in this last couple asked me if I ran ultras (I did in ancient times), and if I had heard of the Ultra Tour de Cordillera Blanca (I had not). It turns out he may have been the one who put up the Strava track showing me the shortcuts that made this endeavor possible.

The rocky and nearly flat road was not fun to jog in a “heavy” pack, but I made a half-hearted attempt at speed. There was no ranger at the gate, making me think that I might be able to delay paying the Park fee, but unfortunately one was stationed where the shortcut meets the road. Anticipating such an encounter, I had packed a copy of my passport and enough money (150 Sols, ouch!) to buy a month pass.

The transaction was pleasant — it is normal to buy a pass when “caught”, and I am happy to support the park — and I was about to continue running when the ranger turned surprisingly talkative. He had all sorts of questions, from how to describe different types of hair in English (“straight,” “wavy,” “curly”), to what I did, to what sort of work there was in the States. I answered as best I could in a mixture of Spanish and English, and things weren’t too awkward. He was clearly used to dealing with tourists with poor Spanish skills, and so knew to speak slowly and simply, and to deploy bits of English when possible. I was in a mood for speed, but hid my impatience, only taking off running when, after a half-hour or so, he left his post to begin hiking back toward town. I initially felt fresh after the long rest, but the endless road descent soon wore on me. I forced myself to continue jogging until I had gone 25 miles (and a bit over 9000 feet of elevation gain), then walked through the streets of Huaraz staring at my phone until I recognized landmarks near the hostel. Vallunaraju is one of the Cordillera’s easier peaks, so while I was encouraged to have done it in a day using running shoes, I do not anticipate using the same approach for the bigger and tougher objectives to come.

Mina Raura, glaciers, and rock

Privada, cerrado


My “guidebook,” a John Ricker article in the 1996 American Alpine Journal, suggested that most of the central Cordillera Raura peaks were best approached from near the high Mina Raura, so I made a long road-hike down from Surasaca, around Yarupá, and up to the pass near Nevado Santa Rosa, stopping near dark at what turned out to be a singularly unpleasant camp site. Not only was it shaded well into the morning, but a thick frost collected on the exposed surfaces of my bivy sack, pack, and shoes.

Santa Rosa from camp

I had a few handfuls of peanuts for breakfast, then painfully put on all my clothes and started up the road around 7:30, stomping my boots to warm my feet, hoping to find my way to Nevado Santa Rosa’s northwest ridge. For my first attempt, I started down a side-road just past the guard-post at the pass. One of the guards, who were not interested in inspecting the passing cars and trucks, waved me over and took me to speak with his boss. The jefe told me that my chosen road was closed due to falling rocks, and that I should continue over the pass to some lakes. This would make my late start even later, but I still had plenty of daylight.

Condorgsenga from the north

So I continued down the other side of the pass, stepping to the side of the dusty dirt road from time to time to let the semis pass. I neared a lake after a couple of switchbacks, and saw a side road heading toward Nevado Santa Rosa. Before I even made a move toward the road, a mine guard in a Hilux stopped to ask where I was headed. I told him that I was trying to climb Santa Rosa, and he said that all the surrounding land was privado and cerrado. He seemed surprised that people as far away as the United States had even heard of their Nevado and, apparently sympathetic to my situation, made a call to his boss.

Nevado Santa Rosa, route to the right

The call went on for awhile, with the guard repeatedly put on hold, so we had some time to attempt conversation. I explained how to use an ice tool, and showed him my crampons, which he had apparently never seen. I asked how long he had been working at the mine (three years) and if he had ever thought of climbing some of the surrounding peaks. He replied that he was busy working and, when I asked him about his time off, asked me rhetorically how much my gear had cost. He had a point, and could only shrug and grimace. He asked what my family was doing while I was wandering around Peru, and I replied no familia, no casa, nada. Had I been thinking quickly and better at Spanish, I would have gone on to say that he could buy decent used boots, crampons, and tools for under 1500 Sols ($500). That is a lot of money in Peru, but probably on the order of a month’s rent or a few months of a child’s school fees.

The mine seems to be the cornerstone of the local economy, while the locals have no time or use for the mountains, so I imagine the Mina Raura will outlive Santa Rosa’s glaciers. Someone may even have achieved the peak’s last ascent, since the underlying rock is mostly steep choss. The former standard routes on Torre de Cristal and the Siete Caballeros already looked much more precarious than when they were covered with snow.

Lake below Mina Raura and Siete Caballeros

Evidently I needed to speak to some higher-up to possibly get permission to cross private property, so I got a ride down the wrong side of the pass, then waited an hour or so outside the gate to be called in. While I sat, I took some pictures of Nevado Santa Rosa and the Siete Caballeros for posterity. I also noted with amusement that the corporate safety sign (“1. No drinking on the job; 2. Follow the 10 safety principles; …”) had been recently repainted to add “5. Only use your cell phone when appropriate.” I have been amazed by how many people, even in the poorest and most rural areas, are constantly staring at their phones, frequently checking Facebook (which doesn’t count toward their data caps). It seems our digital pollution has spread to even the most remote and isolated corners of the globe.

Santa Rosa from south mine road

I eventually gave up, hiking back to my camp with the help of a short ride from a friendly worker. I packed up and began the long march back to Oyón, less disappointed than ready to move on. The worker who gave me a ride passed again, this time escorting an oversized truck, and gave me an apple for the road. It wasn’t the first time random locals had been generous — a woman with more dental work than teeth had given me a double handful of animal crackers on my hike up the night before.

Several people at the mine had mentioned cyclists, so while I didn’t understand all that they said, I wasn’t surprised to be caught by bike tourists on the descent, the first non-locals I had seen since leaving Lima. They turned out to be a bad-ass French couple towing their young daughter in a trailer. We talked for a few minutes before a collectivo stopped to ask if we wanted a ride. They were of course fine coasting into town, but I was happy to pay the 10 Sols to save my soles. I was back in Oyón by mid-afternoon, reunited with my bag and figuring out the public transit marathon necessary to reach Huaraz.

“Cerro la Saga” (5205m or 5201m, FA?)

Cerro la Saga from the east


I had been staring at the sharp highpoint of a ridge west of Rumiwayin and Yarupá for a couple of nights, and decided to try climbing it. (I now know that, on the Alpenvereinskarte map series, it is labeled 5201m, and appears to be the highest point on a ridge called “Cerros la Saga.”) Based on the views from the valley and Rumiwayin, it looked like the south ridge would be the most likely route, and that I could reach it from a valley heading west from the head of Laguna Surasaca.

Old road up to abandoned mine

I hiked the road back around the west side of the lake, then started up the valley behind a few houses and barns that had been unoccupied when I passed through a few days before. They now housed a number of people, dogs, and livestock, none of them seeming particularly friendly. I don’t know the private property situation in this part of Peru, but I got a distinct Deliverance feel from the place. Camping nearby seemed like a bad idea, so I backed off and continued down the road. Partway back around the lake, I remembered seeing a side-road going up the next drainage to the south, and decided to approach that way instead. I followed the side-road a bit, then wandered off to find a flat spot without cow pies large enough to sleep, a search that took depressingly long.

Abandoned mine

I was finally camped on the “right” side of the valley, so waking up was relatively pleasant and sunny. I stashed most of my gear, then took off happily in trail runners, hiking a road that looked drivable but seldom-used. Just before the road’s end at an apparently abandoned mine, I took off on a cattle trail up the valley. The trail was well-used not only by cows, but by humans, and appears to be a popular pass between the abandoned mine and the Peruvian rednecks’ unofficial back yard.

Start of ridge at upper pass

I saw several potential ways to reach Cerro la Saga’s south ridge, and semi-arbitrarily chose to traverse the ridge connecting it to a lower peak to its south. This started out well, with a bit of a trail leading to the saddle, then slowly grew less pleasant. Where the trail continued down the other side of the saddle, I left it to follow the ridge crest north. As is typical of the region, the rock was rotten, but at least the ridge crest started out fairly smooth. Unfortunately, I began running into choss-towers and gaps as I approached my goal, and they got steeper and looser as I got closer. I traversed some desperately loose scree to the right of the first big one, then either skirted subsequent ones to the left, or did some slightly sketchy downclimbing into the gaps.

Looking back at the nastiness

What I had expected to be an easy half-day excursion was turning into a nerve-fraying ordeal. I gave up on the ridge at one of the final towers, dropping down grass and choss on the right, and almost gave up on the whole thing. I had already spent quite a bit of the day, though, so when I found some ascending grassy benches and class 2 terrain leading back toward the peak, I soldiered on. I had to at least give it a decent try.

Once I thought I was past the worst of the towers, I started trying to get back to the ridge crest. I went too far on my first attempt, and was blocked by a short but unpleasantly vertical wall. I retreated a bit and, after a couple of false starts, found a class 3-4 chimney leading back to the ridge, which I cairned for my return. The ridge had a couple of class 4-5 steps, the second of which I avoided by an ill-advised choss traverse on the left side.

Final summit ridge

I finally reached the ramp/gully right of the south side of the summit that looked from afar like the key to the summit. I clambered up it, then exited left on some class 4-5 terrain that looked like it would lead back to the ridge. With a bit more route-finding, I regained the south ridge a couple hundred exposed yards from the first of the twin summits. From there, I reached the top with a bit more careful fourth class climbing. I had (of course) seen no fixed gear along the way, and there was no human sign on either summit. I visited both summits, then built a substantial cairn on the first, wondering if this was a first ascent.

Rumiwayin, Yarupa, Cerro Santa Rosa from summit

I made two improvements to the route on my return: First, I stayed on the ridge where I had detoured left on the way up, finding more exposure and slightly harder climbing, but much better rock. Second, I headed straight down the east side of the ridge from the grassy benches instead of suffering through the long traverse in reverse. This involved some slippery grass and unpleasant talus, but seemed like it would be faster in both directions. I soon picked up the trail on the north side of the pass, and followed it over to the mine side, where I filtered a couple of liters of water above the highest visible cow, then hiked and jogged back to my camp.

The dreaded sheep were out by then, but fortunately the shepherds were close enough to their sheep-dogs to call them back before they menaced me, and seemed much more friendly than the one I had encountered a few days before. There were llamas and yet more sheep between me and my stashed gear, but it had remained untouched, and none bothered me as I packed up and started out on the long road-walk around to Mina Raura. The climb had taken much longer than I had anticipated, making headlamp time likely, but it had been worth the effort. Even if it was a non-first-ascent on an unnamed minor peak, I had enjoyed the adventure and problem-solving on unfamiliar and untouched terrain.

Nevado Rumiwayin (5580m)

Rumiwayin from the approach


Having learned how the snow behaved (well), and how I behaved at altitude (slowly), it was time to spice things up a bit. Nevado Rumiwayin (or maybe Culcushjanca) is an 18,300′ peak between Nevado Matador and the slightly higher Yarupá peaks which form the southern end of the ridge between the Laguna Surasaca and Mina Raura valleys. The standard route follows its corniced and occasionally crevassed north ridge, climbing hard snow with a couple of steps exceeding 45 degrees..

Summit and subpeak from false summit

I got another fairly late start, choosing to avoid the broken tongue of the glacier between Rumiwayin and Matador by climbing some wretched choss to its left. I eventually topped out on a false summit, which I descended to join the glacier above the worst of its crevasses and bare ice. I had studied the path to the base of the ridge the previous day, and had little trouble dodging the crevasses, finally climbing one steep-ish slope to reach the crest near the base.

Torre de Cristal

The first part of the ridge was mostly easy French-stepping, with one steeper section where I front-pointed and took out my second tool for security. Beyond, the ridge leveled off to a corniced section scoured by east winds, with impressive views of Torre de Cristal’s west face. The upper ridge looked intimidating up close, with a large and variable cornice overhanging a glacier to the right, and a steep mix of choss and Andean fluted snow dropping sharply to the left.

Upper ridge

I scampered across the flat section well left of the cornice, anxious to get out of the wind, then took a minute to catch my breath before attacking the ridge. I was sometimes comfortable French-stepping, but mostly crawled diagonally, kicking in with my front points and daggering both tools. All the while, I kept a sharp eye on the snow in front of me, looking for the sometimes faint crack marking the edge of the sometimes enormous cornice. The safest path was almost always well away from the ridge crest, traversing the steep-ish snow above the east face.

Things got steep for a bit

The main step, which looked to be over 45 degrees, was fairly strenuous at the altitude, as it was difficult to kick in a horizontal step to rest, and I even made a few legitimate tool swings on some of the harder sections. I worried briefly about downclimbing it, but the snow was solid despite having baked in the sun all morning, and both crampons and tools were solid. The ridge leveled off a bit above the step, and was then broken by a sort of crevasse, which was filled in to the left. Above, another steep-ish pitch led back toward the ridge, which eased off toward the summit. The cornice finally went away, and I was able to balance-beam along the crest, which was much less strenuous than traversing to one side.

Close enough…

The summit itself, however, was a precarious-looking corniced mess, with light showing through in a couple of places. After deciding I did not want to mantle onto it, I traversed a powdery snow-plain below it to the right, then traversed back up its west side to a gap between the two highest parts of the cornice. I poked my head over, tapped the highpoint with one hand, and decided that was good enough. I normally consider “summiting” a peak to mean putting boots on the highest point, but decided to make an exception when doing so would likely make it no longer the highest.

Western glacier

The descent was a mixture of French-stepping and inward-facing downclimbing, which I can do fairly quickly. It was close to noon by the time I reached the crux step, and the sun was finally having an effect on the snow. While it was still solid underneath, a thin layer of ice and slush was starting to fall off the surface, forcing me to kick harder than usual. The descent to the saddle with Nevado Matador was mostly an easy walk, with a brief detour to decide that I did not have the energy to climb Rumiwayin’s northwest subpeak.

Impressive subpeak to the east

I chose to descend the glacier rather than reclimbing the chossy false summit, and found it much easier. I hopped a few open crevasses, carefully walked down some bare ice, then chose a reasonable place above the nose to dismount. After putting away my snow equipment, I made my miserable way down a bit of moraine, filled up on water from a high lake that looked unlikely to need treatment, then walked back to camp.

It was only mid-afternoon, so I decided to move camp closer both to Mina Raura, and to my next objective. I had been eyeing a striking rock peak to the west for the past couple of evenings. It looked to be over 17,000 feet, but had no snow or glaciers, and apparently no name. It looked like a fun break from snow-climbing, and hopefully a short side-trip on the way around to the mine, so I packed up, shouldered my miserable full pack, and made use of the remaining daylight to get closer to my next objective.

Nevado Matador Norte, Leon Huacanan

Leon Huacanan from Matador


My acclimatization plan so far had been to spend a night at each of 8,000′, 34,000′ (pressurized), sea level, 11,000′, and something over 15,000′. I decided to continue that plan by summiting Nevados Matador Norte (or Sillaianka, 5247m) and Leon Huacanan (or Kuajadajanka, 5421m), two easy peaks on the northern end of the Cordillera Raura. In addition to adjusting to the altitude, this would give me a chance to look at the routes on neighboring harder peaks, assess snow conditions on various aspects throughout the day, and gawk at the nearby Cordillera Huayhuash.

Rumiwayin and lake

I cowered against the cold in my sleeping bag, watching the sun creep down the other side of the valley, but managed to get going a bit before 7:00, following faint cow-paths north along the west side of the Azuljanka (“cold blue place”), which used to be a continuous ice sheet. I had originally planned to start with Nevado Matador, but it was looking less nevado (snowy) than chossy these days, so I passed it up, gaining the ridge south of Matador Norte via a gully full of morainal debris. Starting a trend for the day, I wasted some time getting cliffed out on glacially-carved slabs. I eventually met the sun at the ridge, where I stopped to put on sunscreen and crampons, then headed up the glacier.

Easy ridge up Nevado Matador

The snow was pleasantly firm as I crunched my way up the glacier, steering wide of anything that looked suspiciously like a crevasse. In general, staying near the broad ridge avoided most trouble. I was still getting used to things being “backwards,” with southern sun and winds from the east leaving most of the glaciers on south and west slopes. As I climbed, I turned back occasionally to check out my potential route up Rumiwayin, and admire the greenish lake left by its glacier’s recession. The slope got a bit steeper below the summit, but was still easy enough to mostly French-step with just one tool.

Descent off Matador

Much to my surprise, the summit was a small rock knob perfectly sheltered from the wind, so I took some time to “enjoy” my uninspiring food (Ritz crackers or cookies, I forget which) before continuing down the north ridge. After a bit of route-finding getting off the summit, it was an easy glacier-walk to the rocky saddle between Matador and Leon Huacanan. I took off my crampons, made my way through the maze of slabby bulges and choss (glaciated not so long ago), then found a semi-sheltered spot to crampon up again.

Some difficulties were encountered

The second climb was a bit less straightforward. I started out hiking up the snow ridge, admiring the layers of the limestone uplift to the east, then dropped west to avoid the first of a couple of rocky subpeaks. Much of the rock in the Cordillera Raura is choss, so I chose to deal with the fairly tame glacier instead. The second subpeak on the ridge was smaller, so I chose to go straight over, and lucked out in not being cliffed out on its other side. The final summit ridge presented a few more problems in the form of crevasses and ice-cliffs crossing the ridge, avoided without too much trouble to the left.

High Huayhuash peaks

Leon Huacanan’s summit was much less pleasant than Matador’s, a broad, wind-swept snow-plain. Still, I stayed a few minutes to enjoy the close-up views of Yerupája and Siula Grande in the Huayhuash to the north before making my descent. The old guide I was using mentioned that the first ascent probably used the west glacier, so I tried that as a descent. The route-finding was a bit tricky at times, with big crevasses at odd angles, but the snow remained surprisingly firm even at mid-day. I had feared it would turn to Rainier-style slush by late morning, but remained nicely consolidated, meaning alpine starts would be less important in the future.

LH and annoying lake

I thought my troubles would be over once I got off the glacier, but I was in for a frustrating afternoon. On my lousy map, it looked like I could simply follow some lakes up the gentle valley west of the peaks to a saddle, then descend to my camp. In reality, the retreating glacier had left a mess of cliffy slabs and loose debris between me and the valley. Once I dealt with that, the terrain continued to kick me in the nuts for most of the day, as I cliffed out, went the long way around lakes, and other frustrating things, all made worse by fatigue and altitude.

When I finally reached my stashed gear, found only thanks to my foresight in waypointing its location, I was happy to filter some water, eat tuna and oil smeared on Hawaiian rolls, and crawl into my bivy as soon as the sun went down between 5:00 and 6:00. Knowing where I stood with the altitude and snow, I planned to have a bit more fun the next day.

Planes, buses, planes, and buses: welcome to Peru

Sunset on Yerupá


Although I complicated things a bit by starting and ending in Spain, last summer’s trip to the Alps was logistically simple: fly to Europe, rent a car, sleep in it at trailheads, and dayhike peaks. I knew that Peru would be more complicated, but did not expect the difficulties to start States-side.

Working the airport lounge

Only a few hours before it was scheduled to take off, my red-eye flight from Denver to Miami was canceled. After a last-minute scramble, I found myself on an even redder-eye flight to Orlando, with “efficient” seats that made it impossible to sleep. Arriving in Florida around dawn, I reclaimed my checked bag (TSA having apparently stolen my approved lock), then killed some time in a fine airport lounge. After a suitable delay, I took a local bus to the long-distance bus depot for my three-hour ride to Fort Lauderdale. Having caught up on the news while waiting, I realized that I had narrowly missed Donald Trump’s Orlando kick-off rally. A “Keep America Great Again” hat would have come in handy against the blazing Peruvian sun, but I was already far enough behind schedule.

Customs comes alive after midnight

My evening flight from Fort Lauderdale to Lima was bad enough, made only slightly worse by a one-hour delay with no obvious cause. I could swear that we taxied in a circle before finally lining up for takeoff. By the time I finally deplaned and made my way though the hour-long customs line, it was well past midnight and I was only semi-conscious, having been awake for most of two days. Ah, the glamour of international travel.

Welcome to my personal hell

Fortunately Ted had booked me a room at the airport hotel, which was much more pleasant than the airport floor I would have booked for myself. I slept better than I have in years nestled among six pillows, waking late to Lima’s gloomy haze and chaotic traffic, which instantly took its place with Mexico City among my “Places to be Escaped With Dispatch.” I stayed around long enough to enjoy the hotel amenities, including a breakfast of mini-hamburgers, then took a taxi to the bus terminal, where I eventually found a company with service to Oyón. The bus was late, but much more comfortable than flying coach.

Checkpoint on the road to Gas Town

Once out of the city, the scenery turned into something out of Mad Max: Fury Road: a desert wasteland sprinkled with abandoned buildings and crossed by old tire tracks. It was dark by the time things got interesting, and I only caught headlight glimpses of a narrow road beneath overhanging dirt embankments. It was well past dark by the time I disembarked in Oyón, and cold above 11,000′; shivering, I waited for the spare tires and sacks of potatoes to be unloaded ahead of my duffel. I walked into the first hotel I saw, and happily paid more than I should have for a run-down but reasonably clean room. It had internet, beds, and a toilet — good enough.

Nice town square in Oyón

In the morning, I was still a long walk or unknown transit from my intended base camp near Laguna Surasaca. I used my pathetic Spanish to tell the hotel owner that I wanted to leave my gigantic green duffel with him for “about a week,” and he instantly agreed. Now it was time to do some shopping. Since I had no fuel canister, I needed thousands of cheap calories that did not require cooking. Fortunately these are easily acquired in Latin America, and for less than $20, I soon had a dozen muffins, a big bag of Hawaiian rolls, four cans of tuna, a couple pounds of sugar-coated peanuts, and various crackers and cookies. I attached the haul to the outside of my already-overloaded pack, and began walking up the road.

About a mile out of town, a car pulled over and the driver asked me ¿a donde va? I told him Laguna Surasaca, and he offered to take me to some unfamiliar village for 5 Sol. It was in the right direction, and only $1.50, so I awkwardly shuffled into the back with my pack, and off we went. The ride saved me a lot of annoying road-walking, and convinced me that figuring out local transit would be worth the hassle.

Llamas along Surasaca

The main road from Oyón across the Andes via Mina Raura sees plenty of mine and other traffic, the side-road to Laguna Surasaca almost none. I had a quiet but endless-seeming walk to the lake, then around its 5-kilometer length, passing a road worker with a wheelbarrow and shovel, and a llama-herd checking in on his beasts. I left the road beyond the lake, following cow-, llama-, and sheep-tracks as the valley gently climbed above 15,000′. Along the way I passed a flock of sheep, and learned that they are to be feared and avoided. Though the sheep are docile and stupid, they are accompanied by vicious guard-dogs, not the cute guard-llamas I had hoped for. They didn’t seem inclined to bite, but three of them efficiently herded me up a hillside, barking angrily from a few feet away until the shepherd came over and called them off.

I continued uphill until dusk, then made my cold, miserable camp on a hillside in a small patch of grass free of cow turds where I hoped cold air would not collect. It was not the best choice, partly because I needed to camp on the west-facing side of the valley, and partly because everything is backwards: the Cordillera Raura is just far enough south of the equator for north slopes to get more sun, and prevailing winds seem to come from the east. But I was tired, and far enough up the valley to reach any possible peaks the next day. I watched the sun set on Rumiwayin and Yarupá as I settled in for a night of pseudo-sleep.