Previously in Four months in Peru: A forgotten beauty in a quiet corner of the Cordillera Blanca.
I didn't see it coming. It's not that I'm unusually tall, at least not in my home country The Netherlands, but in Peru most of the locals are a lot shorter. If that had been different, I'm sure that the low branch hanging over the trail would have been cut a long, long time ago. But it wasn't, and I didn't see it. We were hiking along an easy trail – one, in fact, that I knew well, having visited the same valley almost a month before. But not well enough, I belatedly realized, after recovering from the abrupt connection of my head with something hard and unforgiving.
The refugeAfter a late start and an easy 3½ hour hike, Eric and I arrived at the Ishinca refuge, just before nightfall. It would have taken longer, had it not been for a chance encounter with an arriero coming down the trail. We had planned to carry our packs ourselves, but although we had only been
At first, he tried to overcharge us a bit. That’s all part of the game, but I knew the usual rate and after a brief negotiation we reached an agreement. It would still be a welcome bonus for him, landing another client so late in the day. We waited a short while as he delivered his cargo at the trailhead, but he was back soon.
He wrote that he was up for anything from easy up to TD+, and impressed me by listing Chacraraju as one of his long time goals.
I'm usually happy with anything up to AD, and occasionally a bit harder, but never climbed beyond D – so far.
On the other hand, his heart rate was much higher than mine. Not so high to worry about it though, and I put it down to his lack of acclimatization. And the hike might have contributed a bit too. It was time to get some rest.
The longest day
The first mistakeFor some reason, someone appeared to switch the lights in our dorm on and off. Eric was oblivious, but I woke up. I looked at my watch, and then I really woke up! It was 5:48, I had overslept!
Still, no harm done. The previous evening I had asked the hut warden if I could have breakfast at 5:30. Flipping the lights must be the customary way to alert people there when they don't show up for it. I appreciated the service and got out of bed. The weather was excellent, and despite the small delay, it looked like we would still have plenty of time to carry out our plan.
Although there is a small glacier high up on Este, I can testify that it is indeed an easy climb, and when climbing it nearly a month ago, we did not even feel the need to rope up. When I started asking around why nobody climbs Central, the only answer I managed to get was that it was difficult. Even when pressed, nobody could tell me how difficult – was it just slightly more difficult than Este, or really difficult? Nor could I find anybody who knew about the normal route. Not even on which side of the mountain it was!
I had explained all this to Eric, and said that I still would like to have a go at it. It would feel like pioneering, without any guarantee of success. He was keen to try, and so we agreed we would just go up there and see if we could find a way to the top on sight.
While climbing Este earlier, and especially from its summit, I had looked at Central, and that had given me an idea on where to start. We would head out on the trail to Este, to make light work of the steep lower slopes lining the Ishinca valley. After gaining a few hundred meters, we would leave the trail and generally aim for the saddle between Este and Central. Higher up, we would draw our plans based on what we would find.
In fact, I already had one route candidate to the summit of Central: the rocky east ridge from that very saddle, but from the summit of Este it had been too far away to judge how difficult it might be. On that first visit, armed with no more than what we surmised from the 50m contours on the 1:100 000 scale map, we had optimistically thought at the time that, after climbing Este by the normal route, we might perhaps traverse it and descend down to the saddle to the west and then continue to climb Central that way the same day – but looking down the rocky west ridge of Este to the saddle, we didn't like what we saw, so the traverse was out. Even if it hadn't been, it was already too late. But that trip taught me that to climb Central, forget about going over Este.
After breakfast, I woke up Eric, who preferred sleeping over eating, and by 7:30 we were on our way. We didn't know it yet, but we had made our first mistake: we should have started much earlier.
Straight out of the gate, Eric went ahead. I checked my altimeter, and saw that I was ascending at a rate of almost 400m per hour. I thought that that was more than enough, considering that we already were at 4400m, but hey, if he wants to go faster, fine by me.
Finally I was aiming for Central too, or, more accurately, to the head of the small valley coming down to the south from the saddle with Este. Off trail now, I had to work my way through a field of big boulders, haphazardly strewn all over the place. That slowed me down, but since I had avoided most of them by staying on trail as long as possible, it didn't take too long before I reached the end of it. At around 4800m, the terrain leveled off and got real easy. It was relatively flat, with plenty of small streams of melt water and a few rocks here and there. Finding a fine camp site would have been no problem at all. Eric caught up with me – he blamed the rough terrain for the fact that he had been slower.
A little higher, we had a short rest, and studied the mountain to look for potential routes. Being closer, and for the first time getting a good look of the south side, we could see that Central itself actually has two summits, connected by what looked to be a sharp ridge running roughly east-west for a few hundred meters. The map didn't show that, it made it look as if there is only summit. In hindsight, that's no surprise, really, 1:100 000 is just not detailed enough for something like that. But we could see it ourselves now, it was plain as day. And that posed the question: which one of the two is the highest?
We studied the two summits, the ridge between them and the south face below it, but couldn't figure it out. The one on the right, to the east that is, looked higher. But it was closer too, so maybe the one on the left was higher after all? We just couldn't tell. The only thing we were sure of was that there wasn't a big difference between the two. We were hoping that it would get clearer when we would get closer, and on that thought we continued towards the saddle between Central and Este.
The south face of the mountain was steep and snow covered, with rock coming through here and there. Relatively speaking, I'm more comfortable on steep snow and ice than on rock, and it looked like we could follow a system of snow packed gullies and ramps to the ridge. We would have to start in the middle of the face and go straight up. From our visual inspection, we reckoned that we probably could traverse a bit to the right a couple of times, to more gullies, which would eventually put us on the crest of the ridge close to the eastern summit.
We turned west, and scrambled up a short mixed slope to get on the glacier. We roped up. It was not steep at all, just walking terrain. Contrary to our expectations, there were no signs of crevasses. Only further west we saw that the glacier was wilder and more dangerous, but we didn't have to go all that far. We just traversed west far enough below the steep south face to get to the middle of it, and I only saw one dangerous drop on the glacier close to our route. I committed it to memory, so we could avoid it on our way back.
The south faceA small bergschrund protected access to the steeper terrain, but it wasn't wide, and we could have crossed it anywhere we liked. I chose the shortest route to the central gully – only to learn that, directly across the schrund, I faced a couple of meters of steep climbing. There were some helpful bits of rock, mostly covered by less helpful sugary snow. We had just one ice tool each, again based on the premise that we didn't want to climb something difficult without further knowledge of the route. But as it was just a few meters, I made short work of it.
After that, it was less steep again, and we could simply walk up. But soon enough the ramp got steeper, and the ensuing gullies even more so. As we progressed, there always was a way to get higher, but we found no easy way to traverse to the right. Ah well, I thought, we'll just get to the crest in the middle, and then follow it to the summit from there. Perhaps we should have looked harder for a place to traverse.
I led the first few pitches. I didn't place any protection, I basically climbed free. It felt easy enough to be confident that I would not fall. Whenever I got to a steeper part, I created an anchor to belay Eric as he followed, and then he would belay me from there while I tackled the next bit. That made for relatively short pitches, but we simply didn't bring enough gear for doing it any other way. Having a few more snow stakes and webbing would have been useful – but we didn't, as we had not really counted on climbing a steep mixed snow face.
He joined me on my high perch. The views were great, and for the first time we could finally see down the north side. It was steep, and much less glaciated. That was to be expected, being on the southern hemisphere. The ridge itself was quite exposed, but we were comfortable with that. What we were less comfortable with, was our speed. From our position, following the jagged and exposed snowy ridge looked possible, probably, but by no means easy. We estimated it would take us at least one hour, more likely two, to cross it. Even the shorter estimate meant we would have to descend in darkness. And given the steep terrain, that was out of the question. We had to admit that we had reached the highest point of our climb.
Starting the descentUp until then I had counted on downclimbing the route, possibly lowering Eric occasionally, but to save time we both rappelled from the big rock. Having only one 50m rope, that brought us down just 25 meters, but it was still faster. If you find yourself up there, feel free to use the webbing and the snapper that we left in place. However, given our limited amount of gear, I knew that we, or at least one of us, had to climb down most of the route anyway, so we couldn't make a speedy descent. Shortly below the ridge the terrain wasn't too difficult, so we both climbed down for a while.
On the way up, we had passed one particularly steep gully that I didn't look forward to climb down. Therefore, I opted for a slightly different route now, a little bit more to the west. It was easier indeed, until we got to the top of a steep, narrow, snow filled couloir. We looked for a way to avoid it, but it appeared to be the easiest way down. I was confident I could climb down safely, but it was tricky. The main problem was that the snow was pretty loose, so there was a bit of a risk of an unplanned slide. The gully wasn't very high, but it wasn't exactly flat at the bottom either, and a fall wouldn't stop there. In other words, an unarrested fall could prove to be fatal.
The second best option was a very steep ramp – not quite as steep as the gully, but too steep to walk down and without walls on the side to provide any holds for our hands or feet. We decided to rappel once more.
The flat section above the couloir was a relatively thin layer of loose snow on top of solid rock. We wanted to sacrifice a snow stake, but the powder was much too thin and too loose to be of any use whatsoever to build a useful rappel anchor. We swept away the snow, but didn't find any features on the rock below that we could use either. If only we had brought two ropes, we could have placed an anchor much higher up. But we didn't, and so we reluctantly concluded that rappelling wasn't possible. We then had a second look at alternative routes – but without the possibility of rappelling, the steep ramp looked even less inviting, and the only other way was up.
"Can you downclimb this?" I asked Eric, pointing down the couloir. "I rather rappel", he replied after another inspection. And so we continued looking for a place to belay from, but the outcome was the same. Nada. Then Eric surprised me by changing his mind, saying "I think I can downclimb this".
Now that I am committed, I find enough places for my feet, but it still isn't easy. Fully focused, I make my way down to the bottom of the couloir. It doesn't take long at all, but as we had spent a lot of time above it, daylight is fading fast now. Visibility is still good, but it won't last much longer. Therefore I figure that I better use what daylight there is left to see how we can get down further, to where the terrain will be easy again.
As I make my way down; it's never really hard anymore. Mostly I can simply walk. Then, I reach a short vertical step, just over two meters high. Below it is broad snowy ledge, so I just sit on the edge at the top of the step and slide down the snow, wiping most of it off the rocks in the process. After that, the route proves to be twisting a bit, but it's easy going again. Not much further down I can see a clear way down to the gentle slopes south of the steep face. Taking this alternative descent route is no mistake: it is indeed easier than our way up had been. But where is Eric?
Will we ever get down?I'm waiting.
The sun sets and it gets dark.
I shout something.
A faint response comes from much higher up the mountain.
I learn that he had started climbing down the couloir for a short bit, but then didn't see how to continue. And as time was passing by during his efforts to find a way, the sun went down, and in darkness it was even harder. In a nutshell: he got stuck. Not literally, mind you; ironically enough it's almost the opposite: the main problem is that the sugary snow offers hardly any purchase. The only way down is to use the rocks, but as they are partly covered in snow, even in daylight that already meant feeling a way down until something offered enough support, and obviously everything is slippery.
I'm thinking about his predicament. In my mind, I reckon, he just has to find a way. I can't think of another way. He has our rope and some gear. Perhaps he can use that somehow? Of course, we had already tried that, and I have to admit that, while I climbed down myself, I didn't notice anything useful in the couloir either – but then again I hadn't been looking for it.
I look up the mountain and shout: "Any progress?"
Apart from getting hoarse, we're not getting anywhere.
I start making my way back up, very carefully, well aware that I'm tired and climbing