Mighty Quitaraju, looming over the ever more popular Alpamayo just 1.3 miles to the south, is the crown jewel of the Santa Cruz Valley region of the Cordillera Blanca, eclipsed only by Santa Cruz Grande herself. Any given day in the Peruvian dry season, there may be a dozen or more people climbing Alpamayo, but Quitaraju can go for days without a single party anywhere on the mountain despite being just as accessible as it's better known neighbor. Over the last 15 years, the Cordillera Blanca as a whole has been changing rapidly, but Quitaraju perhaps has seen more change than any other peak in the range. The warming climate has affected the glaciers and ice faces of this peak immensely, so much that the west ridge, which was the standard route as recently as 2010, is largely un-climbable each year now due to huge crevasses and bergschrunds blocking off portions of the ridge.
In the past few years, the north face is becoming the new standard route and has been seeing more successful ascents each year. Unfortunately though, even the upper 300 feet or so of this route is beginning to deteriorate, and the ice that once covered the whole face in a solid cover is beginning to weaken, and become more aerated as each intense summer passes. Already, as of 2016, the ice on the last 300 feet of the face is still climbable, but does not offer solid protection anymore. It may not be to long before the north face permanent ice cover begins disappearing completely, exposing the bare rock beneath. Although it's sad to admit, but in my generation of climbers, many of the world famous big ice and glacier routes in the Cordillera Blanca will likely be gone. This may not be all bad though, because many new big alpine rock routes may be found in the future, since nearly the entire range is made up of granite.
The south face however of Quitaraju is a huge face dropping near vertically for almost 3000 feet, with meltwater draining right into Laguna Jatuncocha, which thousands of people hike by in Quebrada Santa Cruz. Few parties have successfully climbed this face, and the glacial ice is holding strong. It's a route for the seasoned alpinists to try their skills on.
Getting to Huaraz will be a time consuming task which will start by flying to Lima. From the US, direct flights to Lima leave from Dallas and Miami, or a layover in Mexico City on Aeromexico is another great way to get to Lima. Flights from Asia or Europe take forever...plan accordingly! Once you arrive in Lima, you should have already arranged bus tickets beforehand to Huaraz. Leaving from the Plaza Norte terminal is easier since it's much closer to the airport (shorter taxi ride) than Javier Prado, which is closer to Miaflores. If you hail a taxi right from the airport, and ride with one of the taxi taxi taxi people (they beg you!) expect to pay at least $25, otherwise you can walk out of the airport for a few minutes and find someone already in their car, on the street for much cheaper.
Once you get to Plaza Norte you will either need to purchase a bus ticket at one of the counters, or if you have a ticket purchased in advance, simply go to the correct counter and check in. Cruz del Sur is far and away the best bus company in Peru, and have regular bus departures leaving Plaza Norte for Huaraz 3-4 times a day. If you had an overnight flight into Lima, the 10am departure to Huaraz will be best. It's an 8 hour bus ride, and the road is very windy as it climbs up from sea level to 14,000 feet before dropping into the valley just west of the Cordillera Blanca.
Once in Huaraz, you'll exit the bus near the center of town, at which point hostels are abundant. The closer you are to the Casa de Guias or Plaza de Armas, the more expensive they will be. I personally like being closer to the river down the hill to the west of the center since it's generally quieter. Taxis can take you anywhere in town for 2-10 soles, depending on distance, and there are literally hundreds of them driving around.
The approach to Quitaraju involves a 3 hour ride from Huaraz to the small village on Cashapampa. Colectivos leave Huaraz regularly to Caraz for 5 soles or so. This town to the north, and down the river valley is a bustling town similar to Huaraz but without as much tourism. From Caraz you can hire a taxi to Cashapampa. Another more expensive option is to hire a taxi directly from Huaraz the entire way. Depending on your negotiating skills, expect to pay anywhere between 30-100 soles per person for this ride each way. You're best bet is to arrange a pickup date with the driver that will be your latest estimated return date. That way if you return early you can likely find w ride back to Huaraz and call the driver the night before letting him know you don't need him to come out for you. The price can vary a lot depending on who you talk to (Spanish skills really helps). Agencies at the Casa de Guias will be the most expensive. Reaching the Alpamayo/Quitarajo base camp at 4200m, you hike up Quebrada Santa Cruz for 17 kilometers. This is a very popular trek, so expect lots of people, especially large groups of trekkers. The hike is very beautiful though, with alpine lakes, waterfalls and towering mountains on both sides.
From Cashapampa, you can hire burrows to carry your gear to base camp. They have banded together sometime within the past 2 years are formed a "cartel" and raised the prices significantly. You will be forced to have a driver, and at least 2 donkeys or they will not go with you. The driver costs 50 soles per day, and each donkey costs 30 soles per day. They only go to Llamacorral the first day, then to base camp the second day. You can also pay for your driver to stay at base camp with you while you climb, or arrange a day for him to return. Either way you will be paying lots of money. Keep in mind you will be required to provide him with food, a tent, and potentially cookware during the time he is with you. For 6 days, our team of three ended up paying about $80 per person. in 2014 it was about half that price. Note that there are a few ladies selling drinks, and limited food for your last minute craving.
Hiking to Llamacorral from Cashapampa starts up the trail, past a couple small houses and continues up a steep, dusty but good trail for 9.5 kilometers (6 miles), rising 600 meters. It takes about 4 hours, and there will be lots if shit on the trail to watch out for. Llamacorral has lots of great camping in meadows, and even a shack where you can buy snacks and beer. The following day you follow the trail for about 14 more kilometers (8.5 miles), and up another 500 meters. Once you reach base camp (14,200 feet), you can decide to camp here, or continue up to moraine camp (about 15,800 feet) depending on your energy level. There is always hoards of people at base camp so you can find out the latest conditions on the mountain. I recommend continuing to moraine camp the same day because going from base camp to high camp in one day is very long, and puts you on the glacier in the heat of the day. Locate the path heading west up the talus slope, and follow it to moraine camp. There should be plenty of tent platforms at moraine camp, and in the afternoon, you can find melt water streams from the glacier above.
Continuing to high camp involves hiking the rest of the way to the glaciers edge, passing a few more tent platforms along the way. Put boots/crampons on and rope up here (about 16,500 feet) and follow the well worn path in the snow (this is a very popular area so you won't have to break any trail), as it weaves around crevasses, and eventually enters a fairly wide gully climbing steeply up to the Alpamayo/Quitaraju saddle. Depending on the year, this may be a 60 degree snow/ice climb of maybe 2 rope lengths, or a vertical ice climb in the WI3-4 range for a couple short pitches. Be prepared for ice climbing with your heavy packs. The high camp is either on the flat bench just over the west side of the saddle and 20 or so feet down, or all the way down to the flat part of the glacier at the base of Alpamayo's southwest face, which would require a 300 foot descent.
North Face - French Grade D
This is now the standard route on the mountain. It involves sustained 55-65 degree neve and ice climbing for something like 8 pitches to meet the upper west ridge, then following the wildly exposed ridge crest the remainder of the way to the summit. Traverse the upper glacier southwest at the 17,900 foot level for about a mile until you reach the base of the north face. Ascend easy snow slopes up to 40 degrees for 900 feet until you reach the large bergschrund at about 18,800 feet. Crossing this is probably the crux, and will continue to get harder every year. Certainly some vertical ice/neve climbing is involved along with a sketchy snow bridge or two that will need to be found. Once above this obstacle, climb directly up the ice face, trending to the left. Reach the defined rib separating the north face proper with the more rocky northeast face. At about 19,400 feet, cross over to the east side of this rib, above the exposed rocky section lower down, and continue climbing, as the sun will likely rise on you (assuming you had a proper 2am Peruvian alpine start!). Reach the west ridge and finish the now easier, but very exposed snow walk to the summit. The traverse over the false summits can be quite tricky depending on conditions (see route description below). Watch out for cornices. Rappel the route on pickets, which may or may not already be in place depending on how early in the season you climb. Check with the Casa de Guias in Huaraz for information regarding any previous successful ascents and if there are established anchors already on the mountain. If there isn't you will likely need to bring 8 pickets...maybe more if you choose to use more than one for each anchor.
West Ridge - French Grade D-
From the Alpamayo/Quitaraju high camp, descend towards Alpamayo to gain the lower glacier plateau at 5300 meters and walk to the 5500 meter Quitaraju-Abasraju Col about 1.5 hours from high camp.
From here, climb the ramp on the left that allows to gain a large plateau above the first serac zone. The ramp climbs left of the rock wall below large seracs. Continue towards the ridge and pass a short wall to the right of an active serac zone. Avoid the left side since it is exposed to ice fall. From here, one of several ways exist to gain the ridge, but likely the easiest is to negotiate the crevasses, then climb the 50° wall to the ridge directly. Allow 2.5 hours from the col to the ridge.
The ridge is first broad and easy, but soon narrowes, thereby forming large cornices. The south side is in general less steep, but will often consist of deep unconsolidated snow. A short but steep section leads to the key passage, notably the false summit. A good belay on ice screws can be found at the root of the huge serac forming the false summit. A steep traverse (5m 70°) diagonally to the left allows to gain the 55° north side of the false summit. Climb the false summit in one long (60m) or two short (30m) pitches. From the false summit, the knife-blade ridge leads horizontally across the middle summit and is very exposed. It may be prudent to belay this part of the ridge if good snow anchors can be found. From the middle summit, the ridge broadens, allowing the main summit to be easily climbed on its north side. Allow at least 2 hours to ascend the ridge.
South Face - French Grade ED+
There have only been a few parties successfully climb the difficult south face of Quitaraju, all of which involve a very tedious approach up the glacial valley extending north from Laguna Jatuncocha along the Santa Cruz trek, and extensive vertical ice climbing on varying quality snow and ice.
Best to climb the mountain in June-July, some years it can be climbed as late as in August. This is the dry season in Peru. Although snow may fall in the high mountains during this time, it's unlikely.
Camping in Santa Cruz is only allowed at three designated areas. Llamacorral is the first spot, located about 9 kilometers from the trailhead in Cashapampa. The second spot is the Alpamayo base camp. Above base camp however, you can camp anywhere you can find a suitable spot. Moraine camp is a good place as well as high camp. Your burro driver will not camp outside the two designated spots.
There are no permits or fees to climb Quitaraju, however you will need to pay the entrance fee for the national park (can be done in Cashapampa at the trailhead, good for 3 weeks from date of purchase) which costs the equivalent of about $22 USD. Cash in Peruvian Soles is the only method of payment accepted. Also, you must show an alpine club membership card if you plan to go unguided. If you don't have one, you may be forced to enter with a guide, which means you need to either hire a guide, or find some guy to act as your guide for a few minutes while you walk up the beginning of the trail.
Far and away, the best resource for climbing in the Cordillera Blanca is Brad Johnsons book "Classic Climbs of the Cordillera Blanca" (See photo below) revised in 2009