Alpamayo is regarded by many people as the most beautiful mountain in the world. It stands high in the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca, practically hidden from view for those that do not take the effort to hike up the lower flanks of the massif. The mountain stands 5947m tall (19512 ft). Especially its south-west face is frequented by climbers.
Joris and I first got acquainted with this part of Peru early 1997, on a trip during which we criss-crossed the entire continent by foot, bus, plane, raft and train after our successful ascent of Aconcagua (6962m) in Argentina. Instead of trampling on the well-trodden paths of the Inca Trail we decided to hike up the Santa Cruz valley south of Alpamayo from Cashapampa and cross the col (@ 4750m) down the Huaripampa valley to Colcabamba. We were stunned by the magnificent scenery and the remoteness of the region. At times it felt like we had the whole area practically for ourselves. There was no way around it, some day we had to come back here for a more serious ordeal.
That day was in July 2001. This time the fellowship consisted of the usual suspects, Joris de Wit, Remko de Lange, myself Jan Wuite and Remko’s brother Arno, all of Dutch origin. Since I was not able to take more then 3 weeks off I arrived a little later in Peru then the rest of the team. My plane landed late on the .. of July at the international airport of Lima. After being ripped off (as usual) by a taxi driver, I crashed in a hotel room in some part of Lima, close to where the busses to Huaraz leave. I was able to catch a bus that following morning and flee Lima for a long, beautiful bus trip that took the rest of the day. I was surprised by the good condition of the road while we were entering the realm of the Andes. Apparently it was newly paved. Our bus driver seemed to like it too and he drove as a madman over the altiplano when evening struck. It did not take long in Huaraz to catch a collectivo (minivan) heading for Caraz, another hour further down the road. There I would meet Remko, Arno and Joris at the local Plaza the Armas (that you can find in virtually every Latin American town). Our reunion was pleasant; I hadn’t seen them for a while since I currently live in Columbus, Ohio (USA). We made it late that night at a local bar.
Caraz is a beautiful unspoiled town unlike its bigger neighbor Huaraz which is a touristy place plagued by petty thieves and with lots of beggars. Caraz is situated at the foot of mountains like the Huascaran, Artesonraju and Alpamayo and forms an excellent starting point for expeditions. Not in the least bit because it is also the home town of Alberto from Pony’s Expeditions, who is an excellent source of information and can arrange almost everything including gear. Besides acclimatizing (for me) and recovering (for the rest) our goals for the coming days were to stock up on fresh food, fuel etc, organizing our gear, and discussing our strategy.
On the morning of the fourth day we left very early for the village of Cashapampa with a taxi that was just big enough for all our gear. The road leads through a couple of sleepy villages and past deep precipices as it winds steeply through the mountains. After some negotiating in Cashapampa we found a muleteer with a mule to take some of our gear up to Basecamp, a journey of two days. Even so we all had huge packs to carry up the mountain. Close to noon we were ready to leave and after we left the last houses behind us we soon found ourselves in a gorge with steep walls on both sides, this was the entrance to the Santa Cruz valley.
It was a pretty warm day and the sun was out. We had a quiet pace. Both Joris and I recognized parts of the trail, we remembered that especially this first section was very steep. Every hour we tried to walk for 45 minutes straight and then have a 15 minute break. We looked jealously at some fellow climbers passing us without backpacks. They had all their gear carried by mules. It felt good to be in the mountains again.
It was already getting dark when we finally reached our first campsite. We quickly pitched our tents and started cooking. It was getting chilly out and we soon retreated to our tents. Tomorrow would be a long day.
After a good night of sleep and a breakfast we broke off our camp and set out. The first section is not steep, it follows a broad valley floor past two beautiful lakes and crosses some meadows and sand beds. We had a break where the side valley leading to Alpamayo base camp meets the main valley. Up to then we could all hold the same pace, but this was where the differences in acclimatization became pretty obvious. A steep zigzag trail gives access to the side valley. I went up very slow, the burden of my pack (probably more then 30kg) weighed heavy on me. Since I did not want to slow down the rest, I told them to go ahead and pick out a site for our camp. I cursed when I realized this was on the far side of the camp when I arrived an hour later.
Alpamayo Base Camp (…m) is situated under trees, with a quiet stream running through it and with a beautiful view on the surrounding mountains. However, we decided not to linger and head up to the next camp the following day.
Moraine Camp is a 500 meter steep climb straight up from base camp. We started off together again, but soon I lay behind. I was feeling great however, and I just kept going at my own pace. Since we could not carry all our equipment at once (and mules only go as far as base camp) at least several of us had to go down again to pick up a second load. Remko and Arno volunteered for this tremendous task and they decided to do it on the same day. They were already on their way down again when I was at about three quarters on the way up.
As I got closer to our proposed camp site the terrain got more difficult to negotiate and the trail got less clear. When I finally reached our camp Joris was already pitching our tents and we both finished the task. Our camp was located between large rock blocks. It had taken a while to find a suitable spot where we could pitch two tents close together. We started cooking while waiting for Remko and Arno to return with their second load. Water is pretty sparse in the camp. On some places you can hear it running under the rocks, but you cannot access it. In the distance we saw a small stream running from the rocks, so we went over there to fill all our water bottles. It took a while to fill up all bottles. Later we found out that when temperatures get lower in the evening the stream stopped running completely and there was no water supply whatsoever. Views from the camp are magnificent. The Artesonraju (6025 m) dominated the southern sky line, and behind it, hidden from view, lays the Huascaran (6768 m), Peru’s highest mountain. High above us towered the southeast face of Alpamayo, “our” southwest face remained hidden from view. Deep below us on the other side of the valley avalanches fell down a hanging glacier that ended in a moraine-dammed lake just above base camp. When Remko and Arno returned we ate some instant food that I had brought from the US. We all ate from the same pot which gives that special “bond” between you and your team mates, necessary to climb mountains like these. After dinner we drank some tea and retreated to our sleeping bags, it had been a long day.
The following day was a rest day for me, since we were already at 4900 m I needed a day of acclimatization. The others having climbed much higher the previous weeks were fit enough to continue with a carry up to high camp. I could follow them through my binocular, walking over the glacier leading up to the col. Just on the other site of the col high camp was situated. We had radio contact every hour or so, I had bought two small radios with a 2 mile range and they seemed to work perfect. We could even talk with each other when they were in high camp at the other side of the col, so we were not in line of sight anymore. I spend most of the day reading, organizing camp and relaxing in the sun. When the others appeared again on the col I slowly started to prepare our meals and tea, so we could start with that right away when they arrived. They had had a great climbing day and were able to dump a lot of food and gear at high camp, so far everything went smooth and according to plan!
We woke up late next day and it took us until about noon before we were ready to leave for the next camp with the remainder of the gear. We cached everything we didn’t need higher up. Unfortunately this included the radio, it either broke or the batteries were dead, this had a large impact on the rest of the expedition, we had to sing ourselves…
The day looked fine and I felt great again after the rest day. Soon we found ourselves at the glacier margin and we had to rope up. There was a well marked trail on the glacier so route finding was not a problem. We had to jump a couple of small crevasses, but nothing too serious. There is a very steep section just below the col, where we had a short delay due to some other climbers. Standing on top of the col I was finally able to see Alpamayo’s famous south-west face. It was both beautiful and terrifying!
While the others set up our camp, I started cooking in a hole in the snow that gave me some protection from the wind. The camp was located on a magnificent spot, right next to a bergschrund. We could see some climbers on various routes on the face. We were not sure but we had the idea that we could see the Pacific Ocean way in the distance. We ate dinner on a fabricated bench and table made out of snow. The plan was made to have at least one rest day before we would climb the face.