One year after making a sixteen-day trek through the Cordillera Huayhuash (see our trip report with lots of pictures here), I found myself back in Peru for another climbing adventure. Our plans for this year were ambitious for us, as we hoped to climb up to six summits and ascend to nearly 21,000 feet above sea level. I am particularly fortunate on two counts in being able to attempt such a trip: (1) I have a wonderful wife (Sonya) with whom I love to travel and share adventures, and (2) my wonderful wife apparently has very poor long term memory with regard to the amount of suffering endured during a lengthy trip in the high mountains. After sixteen days without a shower last year, I was lucky even to get Sonya to set a foot back in Peru! This year we were also fortunate to be joined by some of my friends from college, Derek Dalton and his wife Maggie, who were traveling through South America before starting new jobs back home.
In an attempt to make this trip as palatable as possible to those who operate better after a nice hot shower, we decided to break our trip up into four shorter sections in the mountains, with trips back to Huaraz in between for a few days’ rest and recovery. The plan was to acclimatize on short hikes around Huaraz for a few days before attempting Vallunaraju (5686 m), our first high peak. We would then move to the beautiful Ishinca Valley for attempts on Ishinca (5530 m) and Tocllaraju (6032 m), which would be my first technical 6000-meter peak. Then, being well acclimatized, we would travel to the Llanganuco Valley to climb Pisco (5752 m), with its renowned summit view, and attempt the massive pyramid of Chopicalqui (6354 m), which would likely be our greatest challenge. At this point our group would split up, with Derek and Maggie moving on to Cuzco, Sonya escaping the mountains for the friendly confines of work back home. I would then head off to visit the Col Camp below the beautiful Alpamayo to finish off the trip. Oscar and Benjamin, our guide and cook with whom we became good friends during our trek through the Huayhuash, would again join us on our trip this year. Additionally, Carlos (another guide from Huaraz) and Marco (an aspirant guide) would accompany us on some of the climbs. I really enjoy climbing with the guides of Huaraz, as it is an opportunity to make some good friends and climb peaks that might be more difficult than we would otherwise attempt on our own.
The following day we took a trip to the small glacier below Nevado Pastoruri, a frequently visited spot on the tourist track that is very popular with visitors from Lima. What was meant to be an easy day acclimatizing up to about 5200 meters turned out to be the first day one of us (me this time!) would experience one of the diverse unpleasant maladies that can accompany trips to Peru. After about a kilometer of easy walking, not even getting my breathing or heart rate up, I stopped to take a couple of pictures and noticed I felt a little queasy. Not more than thirty seconds later I was doubled up on the ground, struck down by the altitude.
The rest of the group set off for the glacier without me, as I planned to take it easy resting and wait for them to return. However, instead of feeling better with rest, I just felt more and more nauseous and decided I needed to descend. Our careful preparations back home, running, swimming, climbing the high peaks around the front range, and even camping out on the summit of Mt. Bierstadt (a fourteener) hadn’t adequately prepared me for this altitude, only a few thousand feet higher! What made it seem particularly unfair was watching the groups of middle-aged women from Lima paying to get carried (actually carried, piggy-back!) up to the glacier by porters. I was very nervous as to how the rest of the trip would go for me, as I’d never experienced such a sudden onset of altitude sickness before. I waited down by the parking lot for everyone to return for about two hours, drinking some coca tea and trying not to vomit. When the group finally got back, we started the long drive back to Huaraz, and I started to feel better after only about 15 minutes descending in the van. By the time we got back to Huaraz, all I felt was the normal nausea from the bumpy roads and diesel exhaust of the trip back.
Vallunaraju: The First Summit
Unfortunately, we would have to wait for sleep, because about half an hour after going to bed I heard Sonya making some sad-sounding whimpering noises. My poor, brave wife was now the one suffering from the altitude! I was very worried, as descent wasn’t a very good option at this time, so we decided she wouldn’t ascend and would try to rest with the help of some magical soroche (altitude sickness) pills. We were worried that these might possibly mask more serious symptoms, so we decided if she started to feel worse she could descend with our friend and cook Benjamin. But Sonya fell fast asleep about fifteen minutes after taking the medication, and seemed to be doing much better.
On the descent he going was easy on the softening snow after the initial downclimb, and we made it back to the moraine camp in no time. On the way down we passed several ill-equipped groups who were off to a VERY late start and moving quite slowly, and we were happy that we were not still ascending as the day heated up. Once back to the tents we packed up camp, enjoyed some soup, and started the steep and loose descent back down to the Llaca valley below. Sonya was feeling much better, and we were excited to relax during our first rest day in Huaraz.
Ishinca: Further Unpleasantness
We hiked up out of the valley I in the dark on reasonable switchbacks (as opposed to the direct scree and packed dirt slopes on nearly every other approach). After a couple of hours hiking in the dark my backpack started feeling exceptionally heavy, and I asked my wife if we could slow down the pace a bit. Sonya looked at me as if I were crazy, as these are not words I normally use.
Two minutes later I dashed off the trail to find a nice private rock – I was suffering from yet another of the wondrous torments that befall climbers in the Andes. Again I descended while the others continued on, and I spent a lovely quality day moving between my tent (where I would rock back and forth trying not to throw up for a few hours) and the unpleasantly odiferous outhouse. The others managed to summit Ishinca in a long slog of a day on the glacier and the never-ending talus on the moraine, and we reunited in camp. That evening I was administered just about every cure you could imagine, ranging from a traditional herbal tea remedy (courtesy of Benjamin) to around five homeopathic cures (courtesy of Derek and Maggie) to some high quality Peruvian off-brand antibiotics (courtesy of me). Luckily the next day (a rest day) I was feeling better, if still a little shaky.
Tocllaraju: Success on a Beautiful Peak
The rest day passed and we soon found ourselves ascending the steep slopes out of the Ishinca valley towards Tocllaraju moraine camp. I was again moving slowly due to my most recent bout of illness, but we made it to the stunning moraine camp without incident. The moraine camp lies above the cascading glacier immediately below the broad south ridge, with a panoramic view stretching out across the face of Palcaraju and across the valley to Ranrapalca (dwarfing Ishinca) and Ocshapalca. This was undoubtedly one of the most stunning camps I have ever visited. Maggie and Sonya had both decided to take a mental health holiday after the toil on Ishinca, and would not be climbing Tocllaraju. Together with the two wives, Benjamin, and his son Raul (who was joining us during his extended holiday from school during the ongoing teacher strike), we headed up onto the glacier to wander about and enjoy the stunning alpine scenery. I took some time to preview our route up Tocllaraju, which would certainly be one of the harder climbs I had ever attempted. The evening light was stunning, and the stroll onto the glacier was one of the trip highlights for me.
The wind did not let up as dawn approached, and we prepared for the hardest section of the climb while huddled in the bergschrund below the summit pyramid. The final pitches were exciting, up a steep 55-60 degree ridge of snow and hard ice to broad plateau above. Again, the view from the top was amazing, and I sacrificed feeling in my fingers to take a number of pictures in the freezing wind. The glaciers and tri-colored lake thousands of feet below Palcaraju were particularly stunning to see from our vantage point. We didn’t linger for long on the summit due to the wind, and soon we were headed carefully back down the ridge. Where the ridge steepened we decided to rappel off the summit pyramid, down into the bottom of the bergschrund we had waited in before. As we descended the glacier the temperature continued to rise, and we shed numerous layers during the descent. We finally made it back to moraine camp, where we rested before reluctantly packing up and hiking the steep talus, scree and packed dirt slopes two hours down to Ishinca base camp. That night we were exhausted, but still thrilled with the day’s adventures.
Only the long, dusty, hot hike out down the Ishinca valley now lay between us and another rest day in Huaraz. Unfortunately, it seemed to be Sonya’s turn again to start feeling sick, and she most certainly did not enjoy the hike back down to Collón feeling so nauseated. We did however enjoy another round of warm showers back at our hostel, and returned to dine at our two favorite gringo-safe restaurants in Huaraz (Chili Heaven and El Horno, for those who may some day visit) and rest. We were also treated to a number of protest parades in the streets of Huaraz, as the teacher strike seemed to be gaining momentum.
Pisco: Everybody Summits Hooray!
Here again, we were beset by the perils of Peru. Sonya had again started feeling nauseated, and was clearly not doing well. However, my wife can be somewhat stubborn if she puts her mind to something, and she pushed on through her discomfort. I could tell she was feeling less and less well, but she did not want to descend or take anything for her nausea. I finally got her to take a Dramamine, which dealt with her nausea but made her very sleepy instead (as is appropriate for 4 a.m.). We trudged on up the moderate glacier slopes, and as we ascended Derek’s wife Maggie seemed to deteriorate in her health. She had been battling some combination of Peruvian stomach bug and sinus infection, and the exertion at altitude was not helping. However, Maggie also has a stubborn streak, and miraculously we all reached the top together in the early morning hours.
Unfortunately, Sonya and Maggie were not well enough to thoroughly enjoy the views from the top, which were stunning in all directions. The Huascaran group, the Huandoys, Alpamayo and Artesonraju, as well as the up close views of the impossible-looking Chacraraju made me a very happy climber. After some fun and hijinks on the summit, we headed back down the easy glacier slopes, dreading the return crossing of the moraine below.
Pisco Summit Panorama
Chopicalqui: An Exercise in Toil and Suffering (and a Big, Beautiful Peak)
We woke again at 1 a.m. under a fresh coating of snow, and still blanketed by the clouds. However, this was our only chance due to the strike, so we headed off into the darkness, which felt much more oppressive than usual in the storm. Even roped together, the combined feeling of gloom and isolation that the night storm produced was unsettling. We headed up the ridge, first up moderately steep snow slopes, then across a brief easier-angled plateau. After a few hours the real climbing began – we overcame a short, steep icy gully to reach the edge of the ridge, and continued up steep snow slopes near the cornice overhanging the west face. I wanted to stay as far away as possible from this cornice, but the snow to our right was dangerously unconsolidated, making travel in that direction impossible. We entered a second, steeper and icier gully, and continued to ascend up even steeper slopes. I felt that the morning was never going to arrive – the storm blocked all light from the dawn that I knew should be approaching.
The descent was long and difficult, and we had to be extremely careful on the steep slopes. After a couple of hours the sun started to peak through the clouds, and the new snow from the storm became soft and made every step more difficult.
For a few moments the summit was visible through the storm, and it appeared as an enormous, grey icy fortress in the clouds above us. We finally made it back to camp one, which was a huge relief. Marco had some soup waiting for us, and we thankfully ate the small lunch. We then packed up camp and continued down the easier slopes to moraine camp. Here we decided that it would be really nice to see our wives and rest in base camp, so we headed off (already exhausted, so what was a little more hiking?) to base camp as fast as our legs would carry us. We made it back down to the tents and our wives in the pastures below after a little less than two hours of hiking, a mere seventeen hours after we had left our tents that morning.
A Little Rioting in Huaraz
Sonya headed back to Lima and then on the Denver, while Derek and Maggie flew off to Cuzco to visit Machu Picchu. I spent another day in Huaraz, getting ready for the final leg of the trip to visit the Col Camp on Alpamayo. I briefly considered an attempt on either Alpamayo or Quitaraju, but after our epic day on Chopicalqui I was ready to spend some time relaxing and enjoying the beauty of the Andes, without a 1 a.m. wakeup call for another freezing and potentially toilsome night. We headed off early the next morning on a four hour van ride towards the Quebrada Santa Cruz, the most popular valley in the Cordillera Blanca for trekking. By this point we were very well acclimatized, so we condensed the two-day trek up to Alpamayo base camp into one long day.
Alpamayo: Three Days on the Col
That afternoon and evening some more weather moved in, and we huddled down in the tents until morning. We had nearly run out of food at this point, so we made an early morning descent back to moraine camp and then on to base camp. Again some weather moved in about two hours after sunrise, and the descent through the mists was fun and exciting. Back in base camp I started to get excited about the possibility of drinking tap water and not fearing every bite of food I put in my mouth – I was excited that every step I would take from this point on would be one step closer to home.
The next morning we packed up camp one final time and started the long trek back down the Santa Cruz valley. We made excellent time, only briefly stopping at Llamacorral for a quick bite to eat, and we were back at the trailhead in Cashapampa very early in the afternoon. My flight left Huaraz for Lima the next morning, and I was safely on my way home after four successful summits, a single battle with foreign stomach bugs, a loss of ten percent of my body weight, one bout with altitude sickness, and one stunning week long trip to one of the world’s most beautiful peaks. It’s nice to be home.