Humble Pie In Peru

I don’t think I’ve ever been more physically and mentally drained in my life, and we’re not even down yet. Here we are, searching for tracks that don’t exist, lost in a maze of towering seracs and avalanche chutes. Everyone is tired, hungry, and whether or not they will admit it, a little scared. From our vantage point (when there is a break in the intermittent whiteout) we can see a fresh avalanche debris pile the size of at least a couple football fields and a few minutes ago we saw an actual slide not more than half a pitch away from us. The day is slipping away faster than we imagined and here we are stranded on an island with overhanging seracs and gaping crevasses barring our exit to the safety of high camp. I had thought by this point I would be comfortably sipping on a Gatorade back in moraine camp. This was not how I thought my last climb in Peru would turn out, but then again, none of my trips here were exactly smooth sailin’.

After four or so months of nauseatingly boring and repetitive classes in Chile I had finally made the sixty hour overland journey from Santiago to the so-called “Chamonix of South America,” Huaraz, Peru. I was anything but disappointed. For over a month I had dedicated my life to climbing some of the biggest and gnarliest mountains I had ever seen. I was traveling alone, just winging it and hoping to meet a couple of people to climb with. I ended up meeting people from all over the world and challenging myself in so many ways. Nevertheless, I had only a couple weeks left on my climbing holiday before it was time to start my new life. I had finally decided to drop out of college after several semesters wondering what the hell I was doing wasting my life away in the giant lecture halls of the University of Colorado.

We began to place bets on how many pitches were left. In the end, we each owed a beer to Huascaran.  

I had just finished a grueling hike back down from Alpamayo base camp with all of my gear on my back (the others had opted for donkeys but I was too cheap). I remember saying to myself as I rounded yet another dusty switchback, “This is the last one. I’m just too burnt out.” Of course that mentality was instantly stripped away when Daniel the Italian and I heard our Swiss friends talk about their plans to go for the Shield on Huascaran Sur.

Just as I had made every other aquaintance in Huaraz, I met Daniel through a friend (who I also met through a friend) and along with our mutual friend from Oregon and a guy from Lithuania, Daniel and I headed out to the Santa Cruz valley to climb Alpamayo. We had met the two Swiss, Daniel and Ueli (not Steck) at high camp on Alpamayo and attempted the West Ridge route on Quitaraju with Daniel, and so we all had no reservations in deciding to team up once again.

After all, two teams of two would work great. We wouldn’t slow each other down and if something happened to one team, the other could help with rescue. The next day we picked up two more members, Ana and Amber. Ana and I had climbed with two Romanians on Churup a month earlier and I had partnered up with Amber on Alpamayo. After a couple rest days sport climbing in Hatun Machay both Ana and Amber had dropped out and we were back to two teams. It’s just the way things work out in Huaraz. Plans are often made and broken at the drop of a hat and you never know where your partners may be from.

It was August 10th the day we left Huaraz. I had all my stuff packed up and would have been way psyched if my stomach didn’t hurt so bad. Finally after 6 months in South America I had food poisoning, but I wasn’t about to let that slow me down. In a week I would be traveling back to the states and so this was my last trip into the Cordillera Blanca . . . this season at least. Yet all the way there, on the colectivo ride up and as we followed the donkeys up to base camp, I couldn’t help thinking that I wouldn’t be strong enough to make it. I had taken a beating from the Alpamayo trip when I realized I hadn’t packed enough food. I wasn’t sure I had recovered my normal amount of energy and then there was this stupid stomach thing that kept getting worse. I decided to at least wait until morning before I made the decision to bail.

We made it to base camp midafternoon and paid our donkey driver. Now it was time for the business: hauling all of our gear up to moraine camp. Before us stood a daunting stretch of confusing slabs and ledges that apparently led up to moraine camp and it didn’t help that the tiny cairns that we could find led in all sorts of directions. We searched for two hours with no success in locating a safe path through the slabs and finally decided to call it a night. It was already after five and even if we knew the way, camp was at least a couple hours away. So we set up camp and started cooking dinner and making hot drinks. It was so nice that night that we decided to sleep outside the tents and enjoy the incredible night sky.

The next morning I woke up and my stomach ache had disappeared entirely. Oddly enough it was Ueli that decided to bow out. He was having problems with his legs and didn’t think he was up for the approach to high camp. Now it was just me and the Daniels so we gave Ueli the extra tent and any gear we didn’t think we needed to be taken down with the donkey. Luckily when I woke up that morning I saw a couple porters coming down the slabs and so the path to the next camp was now clear. All we had to do was lug our gear up there.

After successfully navigating the slabs we arrived at moraine camp and the refuge. We decided to save fuel and camp on the moraine that night since we had no hope of reaching Shield camp that day and we didn’t want to spend the extra night on the glacier melting snow. Since advanced camp was only an hour or so away we took our time and lounged around outside the refuge. A friend I met in Huaraz told me his strategy for mountaineering was to treat his body like a god on the approaches and then kill it on the actual ascent. So we each ordered a cheeseburger.

It took us no time at all to reach camp that night and we had a great dinner and many hot drinks. We ended up bivying again that night being too lazy to pitch the tent. I was beginning to wonder if I was just carrying dead weight. The next day we made the long trek up to shield camp at 5800m. We had quite a few tricky crevasse crossings to negotiate along the way as well as a couple steeper sections of ice. Finally we made it to shield camp only to discover that the previous tent platform had already been filled in with snow, so we got right to work. At first we were all working at once but then we reasoned out that it would be more efficient if two people dug out the platform while the other melted snow to drink. When it was finally ready we were all exhausted and didn’t have the energy to scout a way through the bergshrund above. That task would have to be done tomorrow at 1am.

At 12am on the 13th of August the alarm went off. Daniel the Swiss and I quickly started putting on clothes and melting snow for breakfast and a quick hot drink. Daniel the Italian was not quite ready to get out of his bag which worked out since my tent was really only a 2-person. Eventually I was all dressed and Daniel finally got out of his cozy bag. An hour later I found myself climbing up the snowy slopes leading up to the shrund with the ropes trailing behind me and two tiny lights below. It was absolutely frigid out and I was too far left. I cut back right and soon found what I thought would be a suitable crossing onto the icy 600m face above. I stood there shivering and reeling in the ropes as the Daniels made their way up to me. Knots tied, gear on my harness, belays on. Looks like it’s time to rock and roll.

I slowly make my away across the delicate snow bridge, staring into the abyss that at any point might swallow me up if this thing doesn’t hold. Made it. Now I just have to transition onto the face. Chunks of ice are exploding all around my face as I try to sink my tools into the upper half of the shrund. Finally they manage to stick and I hoist myself up. After I move a few meters up and to the right on the face, I hear Daniel the Italian yelling up to me with a touch of fear in his voice. He tells me to keep moving right and to go faster. I tell him I’m doing the best I can and he yells again, this time with even more fear in his voice. Apparently they are hearing strange sounds in the ice as I move across and can sometimes even see cracks moving across the surface of the overhanging upper portion of the shrund that they are standing directly underneath. I summon a little more “get up and go” and soon I’m safely away from the creaking monster beneath me and the Daniels once again sound calm.

I finish my first pitch and quickly as I can I build a belay and start belaying up the Daniels. This proves to be surprisingly difficult as one of the ropes is stiff and slightly frozen. By the time the Daniels reach me I am utterly exhausted and one of them takes over leading. We just stand there belaying and watching as Daniel makes his way up the face. Luckily it’s still too dark to see the daunting face above and so morale stays relatively high aside from our numbing fingers and toes. We continue the same pattern all the way up the face, one person leading while the other two belay and watch and shiver. As soon as the words “on belay” are shouted down, one person instantly begins climbing and the other takes down the anchor.

Everything should have been going smoothly except for the fact that my crampons wouldn’t stay on straight. When I originally bought them a friend told me to cut off the excess strap to prevent tripping. They were cut just fine for my normal climbing boots but I had decided to rent some heavier plastic doubles for this particular trip after suffering through many previous climbs. When I got the new boots I discovered the problem of the shorter straps and with my budget I couldn’t rent crampons as well. I rigged up a system of lengthening the straps but unfortunately it wasn’t holding up to the repeated kicking into the hard alpine ice. I couldn’t help but think that I was slowing the team down. Nevertheless, I only skipped my turn leading twice and luckily there was more snow than ice above which suited my now slightly handicapped state just fine.

Finally, we could start to see what we were up against, as the alpenglow began to illuminate our surroundings. We should have been higher on the wall by then. This route had already turned several parties back that season and we were losing precious time with stupid mistakes. It was still unbelievably cold but a bit more manageable now that we knew where we were headed. Normally when people climb the shield they stay on the left side which is much shorter than the line we chose directly up the center of the face. The day before we had seen that a rock at the top of the shield marked the end of the face and the beginning of the ridge. We had been looking at that rock for several pitches now and it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. We began to place bets on how many pitches were left. In the end we each owed a beer to Huascaran. Eventually we decided to bail off the right side of the face and start the ridge from there. I started leading across the face towards the ridge. Then all of a sudden I was in the sun! It was like a burst of energy seeping into my bones. I stopped just short of crevasse on the ridge and began belaying up the Daniels. We put one rope away and tied into the other. We then simul-climbed the ridge until Daniel ran out of gear. By the time I had brought up the rear and met back up with the Daniels, thick clouds had started to roll in leaving no us no choice but to descend.

At a point roughly 300m below the summit, we intersected some tracks that appeared to be going down. With Daniel in the lead, the Italian in the middle and me in the back we began meandering our way down the normal route through several crevasses and seracs. Eventually the clouds caught up with us and we found ourselves in the midst of a whiteout. I couldn’t even see Daniel in the lead. Gone were the tracks and soon we realized we were not in a friendly place as we witnessed an avalanche cascading down, a stone’s throw to our right. Daniel the Italian was starting to get scared after that and quickened his pace. Then I got scared because I couldn’t keep up with his long legs that threatened to drag me off the mountain and into some deep blue dungeon below.

Just as we were beginning to have nightmares of a bone-chilling bivy above 6000m, Daniel found our way out. We had to make a couple rappels and do a serious amount of down climbing but we would make it. All of our energy was sapped, our food and water had run out at least an hour ago and it was exhausting just to flake out the ropes. We crossed our last bergshrund at 5pm and finally the tent was in sight. Those last few steps seemed to take forever but finally I was beside our home for the night, taking off my crampons and making dinner preparations. We wasted no time in getting to bed and I don’t even remember falling asleep. We had been climbing for over 15 hours in the punishing thin air. Before I got to Peru I hadn’t led more than a few pitches of ice in Ouray. Now I had been handed one of my first slices of humble pie. Yet even though we didn’t make the summit, we climbed our route and got back safely.

The next day we still had the daunting task of descending back to Musho and then to Huaraz and we had to make it back that day. I had to catch a bus to Lima the next day. So after we woke up and shivered our way through packing up camp we began the march down the glacier. We downclimbed, hopped crevasses, slid down slabs and practically ran down the switchbacks below the refuge until we found ourselves waiting for a taxi and sipping on beers in Musho. We had just descended nearly 10,000ft in one day with all of our gear on our backs after our huge summit day. Not bad for a last climb. After a month and a half climbing and suffering in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru I have learned a lot and still have much to learn. I’ll most certainly be back. As soon as I tackle my next mountain: not being entirely broke.