Cordillera Blanca is the world's highest and most glaciated tropical mountain range. It is a paradise for high altitude climbers as it offers a wide range of peaks and routes in all difficulties. Topped by 6768 meter high Huascaran there are 25 6000ers and more than 50 peaks above 5500m within this range, among them is beautiful Alpamayo and the "Paramount Pictures peak" Artesonraju. Climbing season runs from the middle of May until early September, give or take a couple weeks on either end of the spectrum. It provides long periods of dry and sunny weather only interrupted by one or two less stable days, which however may force you to wait in your tent before the summit bid.
Formed by the movement of the South American continental plate against the Nazca plate, this range is primarily one long mountain chain less then 100 km off the Pacific coast. It is intersected by many formerly glaciated U-shaped valleys, which bring nearly all base camps within a day's reach from Huaraz. All mountains are usually climbed by small teams in alpine style using one or two high camps. Besides burros (donkeys) which may help you carrying your backpack to the base camp (mostly around 4000 - 4500m) there is no need of expedition infrastructure with porters, multiple camps or fixed ropes. You will however, undoubtedly find large teams with numerous porters and guides, and one could argue that this method of climbing is more prominent here in recent years. These huge groups (sometimes over 30 people!) can literally ruin your plans if you are a small independent party, so be aware especially on the more popular routes.
Except for a 65 Sol (~$20) entrance fee to enter the national park which is good for 21 days, there is no red tape and you don't need any permits for climbing one of these beautiful peaks. This, along with the stable weather makes the Cordillera Blanca arguably the best choice worldwide for high altitude mountaineering in the 6-7000m range! One very important thing to keep in mind, is that in recent years, the park guards at some of the more popular locations are demanding people to have a guide with them to climb any of the peaks. They are accepting Alpine Club membership cards as proof of competency, so it is a good idea to become a member of your home nation's alpine club and bring your card with you, otherwise you may not be let in without a guide. The enterance fee can be purchased at a variety of places in Huaraz. Consult the Casa de Guias for detailed vendor locations.
Getting There (Peru - Lima)
Fly to Lima. If you come from Europe and have all your expedition gear with you, the baggage allowance of the airline is an important factor. Typically, European airlines have a puny 20kg-limit on their South America routes. North American airlines and their code-sharing partners still allow one free carry on up to 50 pounds, and the standard two carry on bags. Any additional bags you wish to check will be anywhere between $25-50 per bag, depending on the airline. Flights to/from Lima from the USA normally seem to be the most economic choice. Personally, I have been able to get round trip tickets to Lima from one of the major US hubs for less than $500.
Getting to Huaraz
Though there is an airstrip in Anta (20km from Huaraz), there are no regular flights from Lima. So the only way to go there is a 7-9 hour ride by bus. There are several bus companies, each one with its own bus station in Lima. Three of them are listed below:
Cruz del Sur: Phone 424-1005. Departure at 10 a.m. and 10:15 p.m. 7 hour ride for $20-30 and includes onboard lunch
Movil Tours, Paseo de la república 656. Phone 332 0004 or 0024. Departure at 11:00 a.m. 7h hour ride for $15-30 and includes onboard lunch
Ormeño: Av. Carlos Zavala 177. Phone 427 5679. Departure at 7:00 a.m. and 12:00 a.m. 9h hour ride for $10-20 and stops for lunch.
Note the prices do change depending on the season, and different classes are available. I always recommend the cama class (similar to first class on a plane) as it's only a small price increase but the comfort increases exponentially, as the seats fully recline, and you even get your own curtains for privacy.
All bus companies charge a reasonable fee for baggage exceeding 20kg. Tickets are best bought for on their respective websites and printed when you get the confirmation Email. Cruz del Sur is by far the best bus company throughout Peru, however most large bus companies have very nice buses. Using Cruz del Sur, they depart for Huaraz from either Javier Prado closer to Miaflores, or Plaza Norte closer to the Lima airport. Their morning bus leave Plaza Norte at about 10am. A taxi from the airport can take you to either place, however they will try to rip you off every time. Do NOT agree to pay more than $15 for a taxi ride to Plaza Norte, which is only a 15 minute ride. Once at Plaza Norte, you can check in at the Cruz del Sur window, and the buses are downstairs. Enjoy the ride to Huaraz. The road is long, windy, slow and beautiful!
For an excellent page about Huaraz, and what you can find there, see this page. This is one of the better pages on Summit Post!
The Cordillera Blanca is a long chain of mountains with deep valleys carving through to the main crest of the range, and these valleys all offer great access into the high peaks. Detailed below is some overview information for the most popular treks and climbs.
The Cordillera Blanca is typically divided into the north and south sections, for a handful of reasons, likely the most obvious being the ease of displaying on a map. There are two very long gravel roads that bisect the range, and cross the main crest connecting the drier, west side with the more humid and wetter east side. In fact, as you descend down the east side of the mountains, it's stunning because as soon as you get beyond roughly 40 miles east of the mountains, you enter a completely different landscape. The Amazon Rain-forest begins to take over, and the flora, fauna, people, culture, climate and the landscape change entirely. It's amazing the different worlds you can see from simply having a mountain range dividing the land.
The north part is probably most widely known for the Santa Cruz Trek, which some will say is one of the best treks in the world (although many climbers, including myself would have to disagree!). Perhaps even more famous is Alpamayo, voted at one point the most beautiful mountain in the world, and Artesonraju, whose north ridge profile is the backdrop for the Paramount Pictures Logo. There is a lifetime of things to hike or climb in this area alone, but highlighted below are some of the more common objectives, which can also be found on the detailed map below. For most of the famous treks in the Cordillera Blanca, most people hire burrows and the accompanying driver for a cost of about $20/day for the driver, and $10/day per burro. They can carry just about all your gear on the hike giving you more energy to enjoy the scenery and take side trips as desired. The burros also commonly take climbing gear to the popular base camps like the Alpamayo, Pisco, and Huascaran. Spanish knowledge helps immensely.
|Santa Cruz Trek - This is the most popular trek in the Cordillera Blanca. It starts (or ends) in Cashapampa, which is a 2-3 hour taxi ride from Huaraz, which typically costs $20-60 depending on your negotiating skills. Most people go as part of a guided group, which takes care of the transportation and burros for you. You can easily go independently though, and if you know some Spanish, you can negotiate with the burro cartel in Cashapampa. Be aware though that in 2015, they all got together and raised the prices for the Santa Cruz Trek. This ius also a very popular approach hike among climbers making their way up to Alpamayo Base Camp, which branches off from the main track 8 kilometers past Llamacorral. Normal time is 4 days and 3 nights.||Punta Union - 15,580 feet|
Excellent views of Taulliraju and Alpamayo
|Alpamayo Trek - This trek is much longer than the Santa Cruz, as it is done in 7-10 days depending on your speed. It begins as per the same as the Santa Cruz Trek, heading up past Llamacorral and over Punta Union Pass, but branches off just before Paria Camp (either night 1 or 3 for Santa Cruz). Here, you take the track towards Alco de Pucaraju, and then to Laguna Huecrucocha, where there is excellent camping. The track heads over multiple other passes until the last two major passes; Paso Gara Gara (4830 meters) and Paso Osoruri (4860 meters). The hike up Gara Gara from either direction is a real chore! Laguna Jancarurish provides the best views of Alpamayo. The trek then ends in the tiny village of Hualcayan, nearly giving you a complete loop of about 75 miles! A 60 mile version of the hike can also be done by connecting Hualcayan and Vaqueria (the typical east end of the Santa Cruz Trek).||Paso Osoruri - 15,940 feet|
One of the higher trekking passes in the Cordillera Blanca
|Laguna 69 - This is more of a day hike than an actual trek, but it is probably the single most popular hike in all the Cordillera Blanca. A moderate 4.2 mile hike (one way) from the same trailhead as per Pisco, takes you to a beautiful alpine lake at the foot of Chacraraju. Buses and taxis drive the long windy road past the Llanganunco Lakes, which originates in Yungay (1 hour north of Huaraz on Highway 3N). This is also a great hike to get accustomed to the altitude, both for general travelers and climbers. If you recently arrived in Huaraz, take this hike slow and drink plenty of water.||Laguna 69 - 15,120 feet||4.2 miles (one way)|
|Alpamayo - French Direct Route|
This is without a doubt the most common truly technical mountain to be climbed in the Cordillera Blanca. It's the stuff of dreams for many aspiring mountaineers from around the world, and because of this, it is very busy. Guiding agencies routinely bring parties of 10 or more up the French Direct Route, and for independent parties, it's becoming normal to simply wait for a day when there are less people. From the Alpamayo base camp (via Santa Cruz Valley), it's a few hour hike west up the steep boot path to moraine camp, then another 3-6 hours up and over the Quitaraju/Alpamayo col to high camp. Some years getting to high camp can involve two pitches of AI4 with your heavy packs, while other years it's as east as AI2. The route itself is 8 pitches of pure beauty, climbing neve and ice that maxes out at about 80 degrees on the final pitch. Belay/rappel anchors are normally established on route, unless you are climbing very early in the season.
|Artesonraju - North Ridge Route|
The north ridge of Artesonraju is the profile seen in the Paramount Pictures logo, and is an ultra classic route. It's technically a bit easier than other routes on Artesonraju, but no less serious. In recent years, a large bergschrund has blocked progress on the upper ridge, and turned parties back merely 100 meters below the summit. Approach this route via Santa Cruz, however just after the path leading to Alpamayo base camp goes north, begin ascending the lower north ridge, and continue on the ridge until you hopefully summit!
Other routes on Artesonraju include the Standard SE Face (D+), the SE Arete (TD-), and the East Ridge (D+). The east ridge has gained more popularity recently since the standard route has been becoming more dangerous each year.
|Quitaraju - North Face Route|
Quitaraju is another beautiful mountain located just across from Alpamayo, and is approached from the same high camp! Many people actually climb both Alpamayo and Quitaraju in one trip. The north face is a sustained 65 degree snow/neve climb which meets the upper west ridge for the final, exposed ridge walk to the summit. The bergschrund at the bottom of the face can be tough to cross at times, and can easily be the crux, or even turn parties back.
|Pisco Oeste - SW Ridge|
The summit of Pisco Oeste is commonly noted to have the best view in the Cordillera Blanca, with so many 6000 meter peaks surrounding all directions. This is a great peak to acclimate on, before tackling higher objectives, and with the large hut a short hike away from the trailhead, it is one of the most popular peaks to ascent in the entire range. This ascent can easily be done in two days if you're acclimated, three if not. Another great route on Pisco is the direct South Face utilizing the same approach.
|Chopicalqui - SW Ridge|
Chopicalqui is likely the easiest 6000 meter peak in the Cordillera Blanca, and it's southwest ridge makes for an excellent outing to test the strength of the aspiring mountaineer. Most parties will opt to go guided, but this is certainly not needed if you have experience climbing snow and ice. Most of the route is glacier walking (albeit at a high altitude) and the main difficulty found is the summit mushroom, which depending on the year can be a pitch or so of 60-80 degree snow and/or ice. It's best to come acclimated for this route, so consider Pisco across the valley before doing this one!
|Huascaran Sur - Normal Route|
This is the highest mountain in Peru, and closely resembles Himalayan status with the formidable weather, avalanche danger, and overall elevation. The normal route is mostly just a long hike/scramble to the base camp hut (borderline hotel!), and a glacier walk to the summit from there. The Garganta, between camp one and two offers one of the worst objective hazards on a trade route in the entire range. Every year people are killed when falling snow and ice tumbles down the mountain. Make this crossing very early in the morning in both directions. The Shield Route is also a great ascent for strong parties.
The southern part of the Cordillera Blanca is most widely known for the Ishinca Valley, and surrounding peaks like Urus Este, Ishinca, Tocllaraju, and Ranrapalca among others. The hike into Ishinca Valley is another very popular trek, and very beautiful. The Refugio Ishinca, owned and operated by the Italians and built in 2009, is a large hut complete with beds, and cooked food with a large dining area. Paying for the prepared food is something I really like, since I don't have to worry about cooking. However I haven't ever been impressed with their breakfast (or any Latin American Huts' breakfast for that matter), since they seem to think a few pieces of bread and tea constitutes a good breakfast. I always brought lots of extra food since the burros carry it in from the trailhead. That being said, their dinners are very nice, and even include dessert.
Many people simply opt to set up camp in the huge field though, and you will often see huge guided groups with rows of tents here. Ishinca and Urus Este are the most common peaks from base camp, and are both east ascents. Palcaraju is also accessed via Ishinca valley and offers the most difficult mountain to climb in the area. Few people manage to summit this glorious mountain. Continuing south, the range is guarded on the southern end by two of the fiercest peaks in Peru; Chinchey and Huantsan. Only the most advanced mountaineers attempt either of these mountains. Somewhat shorter objectives closer to the west side of the range are Churup and Shaqsha, both offering shorter overall ascents, but with equally technical climbing. The pocket glacier on the west face of Churup has been disappearing fast, increasing the objective hazards and difficulty of this peak. Churup is one of the two most visible peaks from Huaraz, with the other being the Ranrapalca/Vallunaraju group.
|Ishinca - Southwest Ridge|
This is the most common climb done from Ishinca Valley, and involves a good trail hike towards the upper hut on the moraine above Laguna Ishinca, just west of Ishinca. The route follows up the right hand moraine (west side) of the lake until reaching the glacier. Then it's an easy glacier walk to the broad SW ridge and up to the summit. There is sometimes 10-15 feet of 60 degree snow right at the summit that most people can easily solo, but a short rope belay might be a good idea for beginners.
|Tocllaraju - NW Ridge|
This route is an excellent climb, and certainly one of the most classic in the southern Cordillera Blanca. From the high camp, it's a nice glacier walk, crossing over a couple very large crevasses (which sometimes have a ladder over them, and have even turned parties back), before gaining the NW ridge proper. After a short exposed section, the ridge continues, up a few steep steps to the final summit cone involving 3ish pitches of 55-60 degree snow and neve. The conditions on the summit cone can change drastically though so be prepared for some hard ice.
|Urus Este - Southeast Slopes|
Here is another common acclimatization climb, consisting mostly of a steep hike up the trail that starts directly behind the hut at base camp, and follows up until it hits the east side of the small southern glacier. Ascend this easy snow to a notch and continue west up the east ridge to the summit, never exceeding Class 2.
The higher Urus Central is a much more difficult climb on what is told to be rock up to 5.7 in difficulty by the easiest line, few of which have done. Most people who climb Urus probably think they are climbing the main peak when in actuality, you only summit the east peak via the popular route.
|Vallunaraju - Southwest Slopes|
This route follows more or less the south ridge of the peak to the high saddle between the north and south peaks (both of which are seen from Huaraz). The twin summits are easily identified from the city, of which the northern one is higher. The glacial ridge is accessed from the valley to the east via the road to Laguna Llaca. Big crevasses are the most difficult part of this route, and some route-finding to get around them is usually required. There are numerous other routes on this peak though, and one starting from Laguna Aguak is a possibility I scouted while acclimating on that hike although it'd be much longer.
|Shaqsha - West Face|
Slightly more unknown that the rest of the routes described above, there won't be anyone here checking your park pass or if you have a guide. The road to the starting point has been quite rough in recent years and a standard taxi may not want to take you there. Otherwise the west face offers some great snow/neve/ice lines in the 55-60m degree range.
The Huaraz area is a nice place to acclimatize as it offers a wide range of activities, for instance:
- Bus tour to Yungay and/or Quebrada Llanganuco (nearly daily) and hiking to Laguna 69
- Bus tour to Pastoruri (4800m, pressurized oxygen in the bus - no joke)
- Bus tour to Chavin on the Amazonian side of the Blanca (pre-Incaic ruins)
- Hiking to Laguna Churup (4500 m, 4h) which makes for a great acclimitization hike upon arriving in Huaraz
- Hiking to The ruins of Huilcauain (2h)
- Sport climbing right in town! Note that in 2016, the sport climbing mecca of Hatun Machay was destroyed...bolt by bolt...over the course of the entire summer. Truly a shame
Books and Maps
Best Map: Skyline Adventures has 2009/2010 edition maps covering the Cordillera Blanca. It is split into a North map and South Map. They have marked current trails (classified into primary, secondary, and cairned routes) and campsites (established and advanced climbing). The scale is 1:75,000 and is printed on water repellent paper with a price of $12 a map. They can be bought, along with other books and maps at the Casa de Guias in Huaraz.
Brad Johnson: Classic Climbs of the Cordillera Blanca (2009, highly recommended)
Climbs of the Cordillera Blanca of Peru by David M. Sharman (1995)
The High Andes by John Biggar (1996)
Escaladas en los Andes (Guía de la Cordillera Blanca) by Juan José Tomé Nacle, Ed. Desnivel 1999
La Cordillera Blanca de los Andes by Antonio Gómez Bohórquez and Juan José Tomé Nacle, Ed. Desnivel 1998
For more rock climbing, check out the new book called Huaraz, The Climbing Guide by David Lazo and Marie Timmermans.
The Casa de Guias situated near the Plaza de Armas in Huaraz is THE spot where to gather information about recent snow and weather conditions. You will also find a posting board to place adds to find climbing partners and/or equipment for rent or sale. The typical climbing season is May through mid September during the Andean dry season. Even though technically it is winter during this time, the Cordillera Blanca is so close to the Equator that the days are all more or less 12 hours each and do not change in length. The wet season brings considerably more moisture to both the mountains and the city of Huaraz.
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