Climbing grades can be meaningless at times. It does not take a long apprenticeship to experience that questioning doubt over the grade of the climb, which is giving far more than you expected upon initial departure. “Sandbag!” It’s an accusation that has been levelled at many climbs that have masqueraded as something amenable to ones climbing ability. Neither do climbing grades convey how enjoyable a climb will be, as this is so subjective to the individuals and situations involved. If you yearn for technical climbing or commitment, then a “Facile” is unlikely to fulfil that need and in return less likely to be enjoyable. The French word for “easy” and the associated alpine climbing grade does not conjure up images of excitement or uncertainty, which are often the cornerstones of the alpine climbing experience. It was however a low profile “Facile” in the Cordillera Blanca that gave up an experience of the highest quality way beyond that which the grade would ever have indicated.
Chopicalqui and the South East ridge on the left hand skyline
August 2010 and Ben and I are near the end of a 3 week holiday in the high mountains of Peru. With the Huayahuash circuit completed as a spectacular acclimatisation warm up, we looked for a greater challenge, so we headed to the South East Ridge of Chopicalqui . The lush pictures and description in Brad Johnstone’s 2003 guidebook seem to promise everything we want. A TD- grade and a multi day traverse on a 6354m peak indicate the ingredients of excitement and uncertainty along with some technical interest.
Day 3 at 5650m and we balanced on hollow, melting cruddy snow that is in turn balanced atop chossy rock. The crux of the route is way out of condition and despite the psyche between us, we opt for descent. Spurred on by bad weather, we have a long day making our way 1700m down to the valley and a hitch back to town.
Ben on the descent from the South East ridge of Chopicalqui
Done in a day?
With only a few days left of our precious holiday, we are itching for more climbing and hopefully a summit. The bone jarring bus ride back to Huaraz got me thinking. Now, luxury recovery and sofa bound views from Cafe Andino stir up various ideas, which get thrown back and forth between us. We don’t have the time for a big objective. A spiky summit sits immediately above the town. We are acclimatised and it looks interesting. The map calls it Huamashraju, 5434m and the David Sharman 1995 guidebook says that its west slopes are a “good easy route” graded F (Facile). A quick YouTube search brings a couple of videos of people enjoying something a little more exciting than a Facile snow plod. Done! Sold to the two Gringos in need of an interesting quick hit summit. We plan and pack. The videos and conditions on Chopicalqui encourage us to throw in a second tool each along with some rock and ice gear. But how hard can a Facile be?
We hire mountain bikes for the descent from the upper valley. This promises a fun filled end to the trip and eliminates the need to arrange for a taxi pick up. At 4am, we load them in the back of a ubiquitous beat up old Toyota Corrola taxi and drive up towards the village of Jancu at around 4000m. Opting for a single push option, we plan to stash the bikes as far up the walk in we can be bothered to push them. Then blast up the hill and back in a day, pick up the bikes and zoom down the 1000m descent for chips and drinks in town the same evening. A perfect fun plan!
At 7am we find a ravine that seems hidden enough from prying eyes and camouflage our hired wheels. The lack of vegetation leaves an uninspiring effort, but we leave and keep our fingers crossed.
The walk is often without a track and lacks any real approach description, so we keep plodding upwards using the contours of the map as our guide. Our acclimatised lungs and legs pump away and eventually our spiky summit comes into view. It sits above a pleasant valley with little streams and lagunas surrounded by steep granite crags. The tropical sun is now high in the sky and the slog up the scree is an unwelcome toil. The Central Andes are one part of the planet that displays some of the most profound effects of global climate change. Many route descriptions and photographs, even in recent guides are now becoming out of date. Glaciers are receding fast and have left increasingly large areas of cliffs and slabs beneath their melting snouts. In the midday heat, we scramble a none descript traverse line through a maze of small buttresses and boulder strewn ledges beneath the ice of the western slopes of the upper mountain. Finally we are level with the ice. We have crampons on and axes out. It’s 1pm and even this high the heat of the day has us stripped to our base layers. As we gain height we start to mull over our route. It does not look like a Facile. We vastly under estimated the walk in, and now the 1pm start is hardly auspicious.
Huamashraju, 5434m, is the central peak. The bike stash in the ravine, at around 4050m, just above the village of Jancu. The line taken
Killer fish jaws.
There are small seracs and rock sections appearing in what would have been more uniform snow slopes in a healthier snow year. Many of the large open crevasses have the kind of long smooth, thin icicles adorning their top edges, which look like the jaws of prehistoric killer fish. We solo up easy lower open slopes, but cautious on hard bare ice that is slightly softened in the sun. Higher up we choose a right hand line and the uncertainty is building. We have not picked the easiest line, but one that looks the best, without being dangerous. Ice climbing in a base layer feels strange.
We rope up. I put my foot through the bergshrund and back off, but find an old snow stake hidden beneath me. Being a bit of a magpie at heart and sensing the growing potential for an epic, I encourage Ben to pick up the stake when he follows the pitch. 50 metres higher I have covered some interesting Scottish III type ground and am looking for a belay. There is just one icicle rimmed bulge between me and what I hope is a ledge. What bugs me is all the wide crevasses I now see as I look out left across the face. They have similar bulges on these steeper slopes too. What if I commit to this bulge, for it to have a hollow top and yawning drop on the other side? Climb in and find a belay I suppose and not a fall off in the process. The bulging fish jaws however, did not swallow me up and the belay is better than I could have hoped. A solid stake in a flat ledge backed up by a rock anchor. Impossible fangs of ice hang behind me. We now have not one but 3 more snow stakes found on route. They had all melted out, lying at odd angles, evidence of past retreats in more favourable conditions. They give pause for thought. But more stakes fuel courage for aiding a descent if need be. With our single 8.5mm rope we push on.
The next pitch is a classic. Outflanking a large icicle draped bulge, Ben climbs a short V Diff crack to sit astride a granite arête and looks down to the next valley. Working his way to the right hand side of the ice bulge, he swings around into the cold shade and bridges between ice and rock to emerge on the easier slopes above. Running out the rope to the base of the final rock pyramid, Ben shouts down to me. The ensuing exchange reflects the uncertainty in climbing that ultimately distils much of its appeal.
“How much rope is left?” shouts down Ben.
“About 10 metres.” I reply. “How hard do the final rocks look? Can you see a line that will go?”
These are the classic frustrated questions of the belayer, stood in isolation from the action unfolding above him.
Ben. “It looks hard at the top and I’m not sure if we’ve brought enough rock gear.”
“Do you want to go down?” I reply. I’m not sure if I do, but can’t think what else to say. “If we carry on to the top, we’ll have to come down in the dark.” I shout. On the west face we were still basked in warm sunlight, but I know this would not last.
Ben quickly replies, “If we go down now we will end up descending in the dark anyway.”
I like his logic. What should we do? There is a pause. The rope doesn’t move. I look out over stunning mountains, listening to a quiet drip of an icicle. We are both thinking about the possibilities of the decisions we may take. Fears are addressed. Egos are wrestled.
Ben breaks the silence. “We’ve come this far, getting to the top would be great, even if it does get dark!
“Well that’s what head torches are for!” I shout back up.
“Watch me, I’m going to go and have a look.” Ben makes the decision and our little team is in action again.
The pitch that Ben leads is a delight to follow. Shamefully, I am slightly jealous. A perfect corner of blue and white ice bulges, with bridging out to perfect granite. I handrail along the precarious edge of the bergshrund and then scramble up the final short pitch of rock to his airy perch. Ben’s belay is below the final notch in the ridge and I immediately look up at a the direct line of a cold, steep corner crack that gives me a chilling flashback to sandbag experiences on Chamonix granite. I am not inspired and secretly scared. Ben nudges me to look out left though and I see the welcome line of an easy traverse ledge.
Golden granite glows in the western sun. Scampering out, throwing in the odd runner for good measure, I am revelling in the positions of easy climbing in such an exciting situation. The rope snakes between blocks and easy chimneys and my crampons scrape on up to the summit. The sun is on the horizon as I pile the rope hastily and bring Ben up. All of the surrounding hills are washed with colour and we throw packs, rope and rack on the summit rocks, enthusiastically babbling about how awesome it all is. The route, the summit and the view, its superlatives all round. The uncertainty of success coupled with the surprisingly interesting climbing has made for a great route. The wind is cutting through my thin baselayer and almost without warning the world starts to dim its lights.
Initial ice slopes The 1st ice pitch Half way up pitch one Ben on the rock arete on pitch 2
The summit is now cold and we can see the lights of Huaraz tantalising us over 2000m below. Wrapping up in jackets and hats we don head torches and find our abseil tat and prussic loops in readiness for what may come our way. We are unsure of our descent, not being keen to reverse the route of ascent. It looks easier out left, but there are a few steep bits to deal with first. Ben’s head torch gives an uninspiring dim glow from old batteries. The Cordillera Negra to the west is black against a red sunset. Huaraz blinks yellow and orange in a dark valley. The mighty Huantsan is silver in front of a twilight backdrop. The stars appear and it is a fine evening for being out in the mountains.
Three abseils and a little down climbing brings us to a traverse above the seracs. It is now very cold. Ben’s head torch gives out only enough light to illuminate his belay and I head off front pointing sideways on pock marked fluted hard snow. The ground finally eases as we walk back to our original ascent line.
We are two tired climbers working their way down a cold mountain, longing for the comfort of the valley and for the end of the adventure. There are short sharp exchanges. Where are we going? What are you doing? Slow down. Let’s go. Energy and heat reserves are depleted when we reach the edge of the glacier. Belay jackets are on and the last dribble of water is drained from our bottles. The jumble of sloping granite ledges, small cliffs and loose rock from the ascent now poses a much greater problem to our tired minds and before too long we are lost. Corners that were confidently soloed up in the warm sun earlier in the day are now hidden from view when looking from above. Possible lines of descent are dismissed as we peer down featureless slabs and cracks that often bottom out onto boulder strewn ledges that perch above yet another questionable drop. Large boulders are kicked and shoved to test their suitability for rigging an abseil.
The knives are out, slashing lines of tat cord. Will we have enough? One abseil follows another. The rope is thrown into the semi illuminated void. Sometimes we can only guess if it has touched the hoped for ledge below. We abseil, downclimb, zig zag and traverse in an attempt to find a way out of our steep maze. A cold wind increases along with the uncertainty of our location. Are the cliffs really this extensive? Can it be much further? How could we have got this lost? Another chossy gully bottoms out into a drop. Out comes the rope, the ends thrown into the night. Again, we cannot see the base of the cliff. Loose stones bounce about. Nerves become worn. Jackets are zipped up to the nose. Hands are blown on to keep warm and the odd boiled sweet is produced from a pocket to keep up moral, blood sugar and slake the thirst of a long day.
Can we hear the trickle of water every now and again? It is annoyingly close, but no trace can be seen. Is it a stream in the valley? We scramble out of one gully bed onto the front face of a crag and slide down a slab on our arses. The ground below is easing and scree slopes give way to a boulder field and eventually the small meadow and stream. Water! It’s 1am. Knackered, cold but with definite relief, Ben and I down as much cold stream water as our stomachs can handle. The thought of paying extra for the hire of our bikes is now laughed at as we joke for the first time in hours. The aim for a quick hit on an easy mountain and being back in our beds the same night is now laughable. All part of the game.
Sunset and Huaraz down in the valley The second abseil.
Twisting my head.
Down we plod through the hanging valley, looking for the path using starlight and gloomy head torch glow. Brighter lights are heading towards us. This seems odd. It is two Israeli kids in hired kit and a local Huaraz Mountain Guide. The Guide seems as surprised as us to meet in this way. The two kids fire a string of questions about the route. How long is it? How hard is it? It’s too much for our zoned out heads to cope with.
A little later we pass the Israeli’s camp and joke about having a quick kip in their tent while they are away. Citing some of the epic and scandalous stories from Everest and K2 of certain unscrupulous climbers occupying other teams’ tents, we give a resigned laugh and traipse on. One of the reasons for our increasingly long day is that in the initial planning we severely under estimated the walk in from the lower valley. The protracted approach now turns into an even longer descent through interminable boulder fields and grassy slopes. Occasionally there is a track. I start to see faces in the rocks and think I am going nuts. Then Ben asks me if I am seeing faces in the rocks and I am relieved to know that at least I am not going mad alone. One hour fades into the next. Free from the immediacy of down climbing and abseils, I start to obsess about food. Most people who know me would state this is nothing new, but our plan for a quick hit meant picnic supplies were minimal even by my standards. The dull ache of hunger however is now competing for attention with thirst and exhaustion. As Ben and I stagger silently down in our own little worlds, my mind spins from twisting my head about whether I am more hungry, tired or thirsty. At 5am, I still cannot decide as we climb down into the ravine and the stashed bikes. I find a flat spot, wrap myself in that bothy bag and savouring a boiled sweet, fall straight to sleep.
At 6am Ben wakes me up. Unable to sleep and feeling cold he is keen to head down. I stuff the frosty shelter in my pack and we push our bikes in the dawn light towards the village of Jancu and the dirt track of a road. We are still wearing every stitch of clothing as we begin our 1000m of descent to Huaraz.
Back at the bikes, asleep after over 24 hours on the go.
On the ride down, we swap ideas of where to have breakfast and the extent to which we are dreaming of pushing the boundaries of gluttony. Mountain biking in my big mountaineering boots and a full pack feels cumbersome, but all that mass sure aids momentum. This is fortunate as my gears don’t work properly and every time I pedal the chain jumps off. I kick out my heels into the dust and rocks rounding corners, the worn brake pads only ever slowing things down a little. Angry dogs fly out of adobe houses and across fields. A store of stones in my pocket usually does the trick to scare them off or I’m just too fast and they give up. But one big ugly mutt has got his eyes and teeth set on some of my flesh. On a flat section and unable to pedal properly the dog’s jaws are getting too close for comfort. When I was twelve years old an on my paper round, a collie dog sunk it’s knashers into my right knee. I still have a distinctive, round, hollow scar there now. I still remember how much it bloody hurt! Not sensing any relenting in my pursuer’s efforts and only diminishing speed of my own, I kick back with my size 46 Nepal Extremes and feel a heavy thud followed by a surprised yelp. Cresting another drop in the track I gather speed again and leave the beast behind.
Ready for 1000m of downhill for breakfast
Re-calibrating the pie index.
Heading into the first rays of the morning sun feels great and we fly down into the outskirts of town. This is a great way to finish a mountain climb. Gliding along smooth concrete in the morning traffic we arrive back at the hostel at 8am. The old lady who runs it is pleasantly relieved to see us, as we had told her we would be back yesterday evening. She was probably more worried about us not paying for the room. A couple of hours of sleep at the 3000m oxygen rich height of Huaraz, and then we hit Cafe Andino once more for multiple rounds of yummy breakfast, tea and coffee. Amongst my small group of Scottish winter climbing friends, this is always known as “re-calibrating the pie index.” It can almost be as good as the climbing! It’s the end of the holiday and we have returned from a fabulous alpine adventure. Out of the window we can see Huamashraju, all pointy and appealing and laugh at it being only a Facile!