Merriam, Royce

Merriam, Royce, and residual snow


Merriam and Royce, along with Feather, form a striking line of peaks west of the large Royce Lakes, near Pine Creek. The barren granite nearby, Bear Creek Spire and Mount Humphreys rising to the north and south, and the colorful and striped rock of Pine Creek to the east make this a particularly scenic part of the Sierra. I had done all three peaks in about ten hours back in 2009, near the end of my first full Sierra summer. However, when Kim expressed interest in doing Merriam and Royce, I didn’t mind going back. She is normally faster and more ambitious, but is currently recovering from multiple injuries, including a boxer’s fracture, with which I can empathize for obvious reasons. Unlike me, she seemed sensibly reluctant to scramble class 3-4 terrain with 1.5 hands. With my mediocre fitness and her injuries, it seemed like we would make a good team.

Approaching the fun side of Merriam

We slept at the quiet Pine Creek trailhead, and got started at first light around 6:30. Kim set a brisk pace up the switchbacks, some of which had turned into an ice-covered “anti-trail.” The temperature grew more pleasant as we escaped the pool of cold air in the valley bottom, then returned to being uncomfortably cold between the lakes and the pass. We finally met the sun a short distance below the pass, where we left the trail to head more or less straight for Merriam.

Headed for Merriam-Royce Col

I had climbed the fun class 3 route up Merriam’s east face gully, and assumed we would do the same again. However I was not the one with the broken hand, so when Kim suggested taking the easier route via the Merriam-Royce col, I did not argue… much. We made our way between a snowbank and the southern Royce Lake, then headed toward the col, where a large snowfield left over from the big winter complicated access. The old snow was rock-hard, but fortunately some new snow from the previous week remained, and this softer residual snow made it relatively easy to walk up the snowfield without crampons.

Merriam from Royce

From the saddle, we wove our way up sand and large boulders to the summit ridge, then checked out a few of the bumps before finding the one with the register. It dated back to 2005, so it contained my 2009 entry, in which I mentioned reaching the summit in about four hours from the trailhead. While we had not been racing, this made our nearly five-hour time somewhat embarrassing. Lacking a pen or pencil, we stuffed the register back in its canister, then took a different and slightly worse path back to the col.

Royce from Merriam

Royce was sandier, but there was a consistent boot-pack most of the way to the summit plateau. We checked out the two highest-looking piles of rocks, and I eventually found an Aspirin bottle stuffed with a couple sheets of paper lying below one of them. It was still early, so we took our time talking and admiring the views of Gemini, Seven Gables, and Hooper to the west, Humphreys to the southeast, and more distant Darwin, Goddard, and McGee to the south. For the first time in awhile, I had brought summit fish (sardines in mustard), and to my surprise, Kim actually appreciated them. My summit fish are normally an effective way to have the summit to myself.

North from Pine Creek Pass

We eventually started down, plunge-stepping down the boot-pack, then carefully downclimbing the snowy col. Other than one bone-headed navigational error trying to shortcut Pine Creek Pass, the return was uneventful until near the trailhead, where we ran into some friends who lived nearby, out walking their dog. Talking on the way down, I was surprised that the man (Dan) recognized me as Dr. Dirtbag, something that has only happened a couple times in the past decade. Living nearby, he was familiar with all sorts of obscure peaks and routes, and he gave me some ideas for how to spend the next few days out of Pine Creek. We continued talking in the parking lot, slowly getting colder until I cried “uncle” and retreated to my car for my down jacket. I had just enough time to make a late dinner, reload my bag, and talk over hot chocolate before trying to get some sleep in preparation for another dawn start.

Volcanic Ridge traverse

Volcanic Ridge in Shadow Lake


With summer temperatures in the Owens Valley, I escaped up the hill to the Mammoth area for comfortable sleep, and was looking for something interesting and not too difficult. Volcanic Ridge was one of the few moderate peaks in the vicinity of the Ritter Range I had yet to do. It had been on the Sierra Challenge in 2010, when I instead did Ritter, Banner, and Clyde Minaret, so all I had to do was follow Bob’s excellent trip report. However, where he crossed the peak to tag Red Top Mountain on the way to Red’s Meadow, I decided instead to traverse to the eastern end of the ridge. This offered patches of interesting class 3-4 climbing, as well as the usual Minarets-area variable rock and surprise cliffs. The outing was around 7 hours car-to-car, moving at a reasonably strenuous out-of-shape pace.

Waller Minaret, Ritter, Banner

As usual, I slept near Minaret Vista, then drove down through the gate before it was manned. Agnew Meadows was as cold as ever, with frost on the grass, so I sat in my car eating a hot breakfast, and got started around 7:00. Surprisingly for so late in the season, the parking lot was almost full, and there were another couple of parties starting out around the same time. I passed them, walking the manure-filled sand-trench to the Shadow Lake trail at a steady pace, wearing overshirt, windbreaker, hat, and gloves.

I reached the sun a half-dozen switchbacks up the other side of the river, and immediately stripped to a t-shirt upon reaching the sun. I continued past the two JMT junctions, then looked for a likely place to leave the trail and head toward Cabin Lake. While it doesn’t look it on the topo, the terrain in the woods is actually fairly complex, with little hidden cliffs everywhere. I eventually found a wide but high-consequence log bridging a raging cascade in Shadow Creek, and balance-beamed over to the south side.

Route up Volcanic Ridge

Once there, I climbed cross-country toward the lake, finding some steep sections similar to those I saw in Bob’s photos. I also found bits of use or game trail here and there, but nothing that lasted more than a hundred yards or so. Reaching the lake, I refilled my water at the outlet, then continued around right side, staying right to avoid the upstream bog. Here I found some cairns, and even what looked like an improved trail, but I have no idea why it was there, or how it connected to the rest of the trail system.

Ritter and Banner from climb

I eventually left the trail, heading up a talus gully toward Volcanic Ridge’s higher, western summit. With the big snow year, there were large patches of consolidated snow hanging around, rock-hard in the shade and treacherous even in the sun. To avoid them, I gained the ridge to the right, and gained elevation on enjoyable class 2-3 terrain. I had to cross short patches of snow in a couple of gullies cutting the ridge, chipping steps with a rock to get across one.

Minarets from summit

Emerging on the broad summit plateau, I made my way up semi-stable talus to the top, where I found only an old rusty can that once held a register. The views of the Minarets were every bit as spectacular as promised, as were those of Ritter and Banner farther away to the northwest. The wind was picking up, pushing clouds through the gap in the Sierra that gives Mammoth Mountain its impressive snowpack. I admired the view for a few minutes, then huddled in the lee to eat and put on my overshirt, warm hat, and gloves.

Sidewalk and some narrower parts

I saw a use trail Bob had probably used to drop back down to the trail system and tag Red Top on his way to Red’s Meadow, but the peak looked utterly uninspiring, and I wasn’t sure if the shuttle was still running. The ridge to the northeast looked complicated but doable, so I decided instead to traverse to the lower east summit, then drop back down to either Cabin Lake or the JMT.

Looking back at narrow part

After the initial talus-hop and a bit of krummholtz maze, things got more interesting, with class 2-3 downclimbing to a narrow ridge, then a surprise vertical gash. I had to drop 30-40 feet to the left before I could traverse into it, then climb back out on fun class 3. I generally stayed on or near the crest of the ridge, hoping to find interesting climbing and/or old summit registers on Peaks 10,964′ and/or 11,207′. I found some of the former, as the ridge gets surprisingly narrow in places, but saw no cairns or other signs of human passage.

11,165′ from 11,207′

Finally reaching 11,207′, I was disappointed to find nothing, and also no easy way down to Cabin Lake. Rather than retreating over two obnoxious sub-summits, I decided to continue on to 11,165′, then drop down gentle-looking terrain to the JMT near Shadow Lake, where I could use its bridge to cross Shadow Creek. The going was mostly easy, and I was surprised to find an old register on the unnamed minor summit, with only two entries in the past 34 years.

On the descent, the map was once again not the terrain. What looked like a smooth slope had a cliff band up high, then more cliffs in the trees. I got through the upper one via a class 3 gully, then had to backtrack a couple of times in the woods before finding my way to the trail. Along the way, I slipped a couple of times on the pine needles, cursing my now treadless shoes. Finally back at the trail, I put on some angry music and jogged most of the flats and descents on the way back to the trailhead. I felt surprisingly good considering my recent inactivity; old habits die hard.

Update

Since it has been awhile since I have written anything, I figured I would just drop a quick note to let people know that I’m okay, and that while the blog is dormant, it is not dead. I should hopefully have something more interesting to say in about a week.

Update: For those of you waiting for books, I am very sorry for the delay. I will mail them out next Thursday.

Silver

Silver from near Divide


There are many Silver Peaks; this one is an unremarkable and relatively inaccessible summit in the middle of the Sierra southwest of Mammoth Lakes. The standard approach seems to be from the west, starting at Lake Thomas Edison, but it is only slightly farther to approach from the east. Since I was already in Mammoth for other reasons, I approached from there, via Duck Pass and an unfamiliar section of the JMT. Thanks to a crossing of the low Cascade Valley, and a wrong-trail issue, this involved about 35 miles and just over 9000 feet of elevation gain. I knew this going in, but was still surprised at how tough the day felt.

Tiger lilies!

I got a comfortable night’s sleep in the woods outside Mammoth, and a lazy start near Lake Mary a bit after 6:00. Setting the day’s theme of losing to the trail maze, I soon realized I was on the wrong trail, paralleling Duck Pass a quarter mile to the right. Course corrected, I hiked the maddeningly flat switchbacks to the pass, then took off jogging around large and scenic Duck Lake. The PCT/JMT traverses above the Cascade Valley here, so there were a few tents near the lake’s outlet, and I began seeing a steady stream of through-hikers as I jogged the traverse to Purple Lake, which is not at all purple.

Back toward Red Slate and home

While the PCT continues above the valley, I needed to be on the other side, so I left it to drop about 1500 feet to Fish Creek, then slowly gain it back on the other side, on a trail following Minnow Creek. Fish Creek was more of a river, and the flat valley bottom was swarming with mosquitoes and black flies after the wet winter. I found a usable but precarious log-jam about 100 yards downstream, and slowly struggled across while alternately grabbing branches for balance and swatting the hordes of mosquitoes.

Olive Lake

Other than drawing a GPX track to download the relevant maps the day before, I had not paid much attention to the route, so I passed a signed turnoff to “Iva Bell” (hot springs, it turns out, not a dome) without much attention, lost in my angry music and dark thoughts. The mosquitoes remained relentless as I passed though Jackson Meadow, swarming me when I stopped to wring out my sock after slipping at a stream crossing. At a signed turnoff to Olive Lake, I pulled out my map, and realized that I had traveled quite a ways up the wrong valley. As usual, my first response was to curse at having made a long day even longer through stupidity and inattention; fortunately I had the valley to myself. Looking briefly at the map, the best plan seemed to be to take the trail to Olive Lake, then traverse west somehow to Silver.

Anne and Peter Pande Lakes

Other than the mosquitoes, which attacked again as I got more water at Olive Lake, the valley was pleasant and easy. I eyed the terrain as I climbed toward the Silver Divide, and thought it looked easiest to gain the right-hand ridge just below the Divide. Once on the ridge, I saw that it would be faster to descend a bit and traverse the high bench at the head of Long Canyon, rather than following the ridge. There was still a lot of snow hanging around on the northeast slope, but it was soft enough at midday to cross without much trouble. I dropped down to about 10,800′, then regained the ridge at the final saddle before Silver to climb its southeast ridge.

North to Ritter, Banner, and Mammoth Mountain

Reaching the summit after some unremarkable class 2 scrambling, I was pleased to find an old Doug Mantle register from his first trip through the SPS list, and surprised to be the first visitor this year. It was about 12:30, and I had told Renee I would meet her back in Mammoth by “mid-afternoon.” That clearly was not happening, but if I followed the correct trails and jogged, I could at least be slightly less late. I ate my last food, took a few photos, and started for home.

Beetlebug Lake

Getting down to Beetlebug Lake was tricky, as it is surrounded by steep walls and nasty brush. I dropped to the small unnamed tarns, then traversed above the brush to the left until, via some slab shenanigans, I dropped to the lake near its outlet. The Long Canyon trail was surprisingly faint, and I found and lost it several times on my way back to the “Iva Bell” junction. I mercilessly shortcut the trail down to Fish Creek, then decided to ford it instead of using the logjam. This was probably faster, but I made the mistake of keeping my pants on, soaking them in the thigh-deep “crux” of the crossing. It was a hot day, though, and the water was not too cold, so I did not mind as much as I normally would.

The climb back to Purple Lake was a grind, but the traverse back to Duck Pass went quickly. The JMT hordes were out in full force, replacing the mosquitoes at this higher elevation. I texted Renee from Duck Pass, then descended at a credible jog. I thought I would be fit after my time in Peru, but in all those weeks carrying heavy packs and moving slowly in boots, I had neglected my running fitness. Clearly a tuneup is in order.

Ibapah

Ibapah summit


There are 57 peaks in the lower 48 with at least 5000 feet of prominence (ultra-prominence peaks), including a disappointing number of range highpoints in the wastelands of Nevada and western Utah. In the past, I have used them as a way to break up drives between the Rockies and Sierra. Lying 50 miles of dirt from the nearest pavement, and over 100 from what passes for civilization in northeastern Nevada, Ibapah is about as close as you can get to the middle of nowhere. For this reason I had put off climbing it, and considered skipping it entirely. However, faced with yet another drive across Nevada, I decided to tag this last western ultra, leaving me only Mounts Washington and Mitchell back east, which I can hike when I retire.

Deep Creek range from the east

Following the approach description on Summitpost, I drove across Utah on I-80, then south from Wendover on US 93 before taking a series of progressively worse and more remote roads through Gold Hill. The occasional intersections featured BLM signs indicating that various ghost towns or natural features were disturbingly far away in some other direction. I had been driving since dawn, so when I reached an old Pony Express station around dusk, I camped there instead of continuing to the trailhead. The station had some BLM interpretive signs, and a register showing a surprising amount of traffic for such a remote location.

Climbing potential

The next morning, I drove down the east side of the Deep Creek range, then up the Granite Creek road to just past the first stream crossing, where I parked at one of a number of nice campsites. The road rapidly deteriorates beyond this point, becoming impassable for anything but ATVs within less than a mile. Unsurprisingly, the walls of Granite Canyon are decorated with various granite crags and spires; it would probably be a popular climbing destination if it were closer to civilization.

Starting up Granite Canyon

The road turns into a trail, which gradually fades as it climbs to the saddle south of Ibapah. I left this trail shortly before the saddle, heading cross-country below the spine of the range toward the summit. The crest itself is undulating and rocky in places, so the ascending side-hill traverse seemed faster. At the last notch before the summit, I was surprised to find a constructed trail switchbacking up the final slopes. It was probably built by surveyors, as I found a pile of bricks near the summit suggesting that Ibapah may have been a triangulation point.

North from summit

I noted a couple of familiar names in the register, surveyed the nearly-empty valleys to the east and west, then headed back toward my car. Rather than following the trail, I decided to do what Ted had done, dropping straight down a ridge to the south. This worked well at first, as I descended steep grassy slopes covered in granite boulders, then open woods. Unfortunately, the final half-mile or so to the trail was made miserable by undergrowth, making my shortcut only slightly faster than following the trail. Once back on the standard route, it was a pleasant jog to the car.

I cooked lunch, rinsed off in the creek, then started the long drive to California. Consulting my printed atlas, it looked like it would be faster to continue south on the main dirt road to highway 6, which leads all the way to Bishop. Indeed, this is a simpler and possibly even shorter approach to Ibapah for someone already on a cross-country drive. Less than a mile from the trailhead, exactly what I had dreaded occurred: I hit a sharp rock and got a flat. I yard-saled the back of my car to get at the doughnut spare, then spent the rest of the afternoon slowly driving 110 miles to Ely, where I arrived just before the tire place closed. Thirty minutes and $16 later, I was back on the road, putting in about a half of a Nevada worth of miles before camping in the Currant Mountains.

Fairchild, Hagues, Mummy

Fairchild and Hagues


I was reintroduced to the United States in just about the worst possible way, with a 24-hour layover in Fort Lauderdale for a flight that was delayed by two hours. Rather than sleeping in the airport, I paid $80 for a room at a hotel with an airport shuttle. However, the room wasn’t ready until almost two hours after I checked in, and the shuttle didn’t run early enough to get me to the airport for my flight. So I paid about $7 per hour to use the room — about what I would pay for an entire night in Huaraz — then another $2 to ride the city bus back to the airport. Welcome home!

Welcome home

Fortunately my car was still at Ted’s house, so I spent a night there, then he joined me for some peak-bagging near Estes Park. I had done the southern half of the Mummy Range before Peru via Ypsilon’s Blitzen Ridge, so it seemed appropriate to finish off the range on my return. All of the northern peaks are walk-ups, but they turn out to be a long walk from the Lawn Lake trailhead, so it was a full day.

Ypsilon from Fairchild

We arrived at the trailhead a bit after 6:00, to find a few others already packing up. It had rained on the drive up, and the weather remained unpromising as we started. The Lawn Lake trail was frustrating after the summer’s direct Peruvian trails, with the pointless near-horizontal switchbacks common to American stock trails. It started raining as we reached the open area below Lawn Lake, but there was no lightning and I had my Peruvian trash bag, so I didn’t mind too much.

Never Summer Range

The rain soaked the willows above the lake, which in turn gave me a brief leg-washing. Ted had injured his foot a few weeks before, and was feeling slow, so I took off by myself to tag Fairchild while he headed straight for Hagues, the range highpoint. I made quick work of the talus-hop with my Andean fitness, then jogged the descent and caught Ted a bit below Hagues’ summit. I gather the standard route is class 2 from the other side, but I found some class 4 shenanigans along the ridge that made it the day’s best peak. The summit was somewhat spoiled by a radio repeater, but the weather had cleared enough for good views of the Never Summer range to the west, the lowlands of southern Wyoming to the north, and an unnamed and mostly-frozen lake between Hagues and Rowe Peaks, below what used to be the Rowe Glacier.

The descent to the saddle with Mummy was a somewhat tedious talus-hop, but the terrain improved from there, with an easy climb to the summit and a grassy stroll down its southeast side to the Black Canyon trail. It took a bit of woods-thrashing to find it, then an endless trail-hike to return to the car. After a well-earned burger in Estes Park, Ted headed back home and I drove off to find a place to sleep before the long drive west.

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.