Waiting for a ride home after cragging near Marcara.
"What food are you bringing?" asked Alex.
"I mean, what are you bringing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?"
And thus we set off to climb to the southeast face of Churup in the Peruvian Andes.
Alex and I stepped off the bus in Huaraz, Peru, three weeks ago. We arrived at LAX at 5 am local time and arrived in Huaraz at 5 am local time the next day, though without much sleep during the intervening hours. First order of business? Build some red blood cells--Huaraz sits above 3000m. A nap here, a crag there, a stroll through a rural Andean village now and again. Four days in, we were feeling quite well, so we boarded one of the collectivos--which are really remarkable public transportation, at least against the low standards of a native Angeleno--and some 3 soles lighter, we disembarked at Yungay and started lumbering uphill with our heavy packs to find another collectivo headed into the mountains.
It was late, though, and no collectivos were making the four hour drive from Yungay, through the Cordillera Blanca on a dirt road, over a 4700m pass, and down the other side to Yanama, so we walked downhill to where the wolfish taxi drivers had admired the silvery Baruntses hanging from my shoulders with glints of green in their eyes. The first quoted price to Yanapaccha base camp? One hundred soles. Alex and I don't speak a word of Spanish besides "burro" and another which I will omit, but we understood from the multiplying group of taxi drivers surrounding us that they were colluding. Nonsense. We broke through the circle, walked downhill away from the colluding foxes, and asked an idle taxi driver if he would drive us up for seventy. Eighty, he said. We knew from his smirk that it was a high price, but it was late, and doe-eyed gringos that we are, thrust our packs in the trunk and hopped in for our first foray into these magnificent white hills.
At the national park entrance gate, which was locked, I hopped out of the car to buy passes from the park steward. Officially, the policy is that climbers must have guias
, or guides, but really they just want assurance that you will not harm yourself, or, if you do, that you will be able to pay rescue costs. A membership card from the UIAA, American Alpine Club, or Club Alpin Francais will get you a long way, but our AAC cards couldn't help us because we left them at the hostel.
On a multipitch crag near Laguna Antacoccha.
"Debe tener una guía."
Garrett warned me about this--apparently, even with an AAC card, it is difficult to get a national park pass without a guide. However, as he advised, I had groomed myself and looked as unlike the Aladdin-panted, bearded, sole-scrounging neohippies from Huaraz as possible, and I proclaimed that we were "muy experienced" and threw out some big names, such as Mont Blanc and Himalaya. He looked me up and down, from my cleanly shaven visage to my neatly coiled rope to my respectably-worn but not tattered softshells, and... bingo. 130 soles, two passes, back to the car, go.
Fast-forward ten hours: it is 2 am, and I have decided that going back to the tent from the outhouse is futile because I will probably have to turn around halfway into the three-minute walk. I seat myself on a boulder next to the outhouse, dozing in and out of consciousness, the breeze occasionally carrying wafts of human and cow shit to my nostrils, and when I am conscious, my friends, I poop. Oh, how I poop.
Around 4 am, bowels thoroughly purged, I returned to the tent and slept until sunrise, when I was awoken by a massive bull poking its head into the tent. As we packed that morning to return to Huaraz for antibiotics, the bull became progressively more aggressive. Alarmed, we picked up ice tools and wielded them like skinny, prepubescent schoolgirls and circled a big rock to put something in between us and the pesky beast. A shepherd caught sight of this drama and walked over. He nodded towards the bull and asked something which probably meant, "giving you trouble?" "Si," we said. He picked up a big stick, cracked a smile, and CHARGED THE BULL. The bull lifted its head, and I swear its eyes widened in horror before it came to its senses and bolted up a hill well out of reach of our fearsome shepherd friend. Emboldened by this demonstration, when the bull came back, Alex grabbed a snow picket and I grabbed two boots, laces connecting them into clunky nunchuks, and he waved his picket and I swung my nunchuk boots and we ran after that bull, and it in turn ran, from us, terrified.
Hatun Machay and the hut.
After we procured some over-the-counter antibiotics in Huaraz, I felt better, though not quite up for the mountains, so we went to Hatun Machay, which bills itself as the best sport climbing area in Peru. There is a beautiful hut there, and it is at 4200m, so we would be able to recover and acclimate at the same time. Good climbing, good people, and a magical, surreal atmosphere pervade the place. It is like an older, greener, and wiser Joshua Tree, if that makes any sense. I strongly recommend a visit, especially if the alternative is acclimatizing on a blase peak in the Blanca.
This is where we met a geologist, Dave, who was travelling with a dog. His dog has lived quite the colorful life; when he was in Argentina in the mountains on work, he left his dog, call him Junior, since I forgot his name, in town. Unbeknownst to him, Junior had a romantic interlude with a white lab ladydog, whose owners assumed he was a stray and took him on a hiking trip to the Andes with his new girlfriend. A year later, in Yosemite, Dave was walking Junior through Curry Village when he started to tug vigorously and uncharacteristically on his leash. Unable to hold him, Dave let go. He wove through startled tourists after Junior, who was sprinting possessed. When Dave caught up, Junior was nuzzling a white lab.
"This is YOUR dog?" asked a group of Argentinean climbers.
Urus Este, acclimatization peak |
Ranrapalca from morraine camp
After Hatun Machay, we climbed an easy peak in the Blanca and attempted Ranrapalca, but had pushed too quickly for 6000m, because I became altitude sick and we were forced back to Huaraz. As we gorged ourselves here and there, sometimes at a gringo place, sometimes not, we ran into Gil from PullHarder at Cafe Andino. Gil had just come off of Churup, which we had been eyeing for weeks, and had some encouraging beta; everyone else--a considerable number of groups—had been turned back by unexpectedly hard climbing for a D+ route. "Not to be pessimistic, man, but don't try it unless you're, like, one notch below Steve House. It's loose death rock up there." Fairly confident in mixed after a couple winters scratching up Tahquitz and that slabby, 5.7 first pitch on the headwall of the south face of Lone Pine Peak, we knew it would be fine. We knew it would be fun. Alex bought some bread and quail eggs, I bought some Oreos, and voila, before we knew it, our bags were packed and we were standing on a dusty street with several local women and a horde of young children waiting for the next collectivo to Llupa.
When the collectivo arrived, it didn't alert our attention because it was a sedan, taxi model, not the usual collectivo minivan. In the resulting moment of hesitation, the women had hoisted their sacks of grains, scurried with unbelievable agility and rapidity to the vehicle, and before we were entirely clear what had happened, the collectivo was brimming with tightly-packed bodies and was merrily off to Llupa, we pokey gringos left on the dusty corner. A taxi soon passed, we flagged it, and we coughed up the twenty soles per head to drive to the trailhead.
We had hiked early in the trip to Laguna Churup, which is at 4450m, for acclimatization, and our increase in speed and comfort, even with heavy packs, was remarkable and gratifying on our hike to camp. We arrived around 5 pm, having started late from Hauraz, and we promptly fell asleep for our 3 am wake-up.
Ranrapalca high camp
Going to Llupa
Camp below Nevado Churup
First pitch traverse
I was awake and alert before the alarm, so we started rustling about early, eating Oreos, tying shoelaces, donning harnesses, and so forth, and we finally left camp at 3:30. The approach from camp has two phases: first, a hike across a mess of granite slabs left by the retreating, tropical glacier, then a hike up the steep remnants of the glacier. We lost a little but not much time bumbling about in the dark on the treacherous, dewy slabs, then had a bit of fun crossing the glacier by the most direct path, tackling steep crevasse walls and seracs: it has been a while since we had climbed ice, and we were a pair of giddy kids. By 7 am, we had crossed the bergshrund by an exciting but not terrifying snow bridge, and we walked up a 50 degree snow slope to the headwall, where I defecated--in a moat, out-of-sight--and where we set up the first belay. By now it was 7:30, well-lit, and we were in good spirits.
Since there are few pictures from Churup, here is one from Vallunaraju.
The first pitch traversed right on similar snow slopes for half a pitch before climbing up a short, 5m, slabby mixed section. Ah, excellent. This is why I came to Peru. Alex joined me shortly, and we belayed on in-situ pitons under a steep rock runnel which is described as UIAA V, or 5.7, in Brad Johnson's book. The runnel looked like it had decent ice in the lower half, but much thinner ice above. Alex graciously offered this and the remaining mixed pitches to me on the understanding that he would get the snow and ice at the top. "Deal!" I headed up the rock runnel, front-pointing increasingly steeper ice, looking for protection but finding not even a hairline crack for a knifeblade. About halfway up the pitch, I looked down on Alex, now twenty or more meters below, and realized that the climbing was getting harder and I still had nary a piece. Downclimb or upclimb? I thought. The runnel ended in 10m at a ledge, and I knew I could relax on the snow there. I whacked some ice off some holds, stuffed my gloves under the chest of my bibs, racked one of my tools, and whacked and clutched and scratched and whooped and hollered my way up the rest of this fantastic pitch. THIS is what I came to Peru for. What a thrill! I put in an anchor, and Alex joined me expeditiously.
Another from Vallunaraju.
Pitch three was more wild mixed climbing; in the past, the headwall directly above the third belay had a decent smattering of ice and was the preferred way to the upper snow and ice pitches, but it was bone dry, and very much 85 degrees, as advertised, and difficult-looking, so we decided to traverse left because we suspected from scouting—and Gil had confirmed--a diagonal ledge system which would put us on easier ground. I headed left, using pick jams, gloved hand jams, and good old hooks, to my delight, through protected and incredible red rock and bottomless snow until the end of the ledge system. Here, I clambered up a steep snowdrift, stemming between it and rock. I belayed Alex up.
Let's also pretend this is from Churup (Vallunaraju N ridge)
From here, there is another pitch through more mixed ground, then one can traverse right into a moderate angle, enjoyable snow and ice field which can be taken to the 5500m summit. Nine pitches from the bergshrund, I trudged past Alex's two screw belay in aerated ice, climbed past a last bergshrund, and emerged onto the summit ridge a mere 10m from the summit. I pounded in a picket, collapsed on my knees, and hip-belayed Alex to the summit ridge. It was 3:30 pm, eight hours from the first belay and twelve hours from camp. A little slow, but solid overall for our first big Andean peak. A quick snapshot, then voila, time to go.
We descended an easy snow ridge to climber's right until downclimbing started to get difficult. Here, we found several pitons, messed with the rat's nest to make it safer, then headed down the first of eight sixty meter rappels adjacent to a large rock buttress. The second station was bomber, I threaded the pull strand through as Alex pulled, and voila, within minutes we were on rappel two.
As I descended this pitch, I noticed a lot of hungry, pointy rocks. I arrived at the next station, inspected the anchor, added a piton, called off rappel, and Alex joined me. I threaded, he pulled. I threaded all ten meters of slack in the pull line and looked over at Alex to see why there wasn't more rope.
He yanked from another angle. He thrashed at it and whipped it and pulled, yet it remained resolutely stuck. Ten minutes passed, and it hadn't budged. With scarcely 10m of rope available for 500 remaining meters of rappelling, we would have to climb up to free the knot. The light had turned golden in the meantime, as it does in the Cordillera Blanca around sunset. It is a beautiful and warm color from the streets of Huaraz or a comfortable campsite. Faced with a stuck rope, it was distinctly unpleasant and alarming. Still, we only had to climb 10m to reach the other strand, and the knot was thoroughly stuck, so we could self-belay on the strand we had; it really wasn't the end of the world yet. I looked back at Alex to tell him this, but he was grinning. Relief.
I continued to thread the rope through the anchor and imagined stumbling back into camp at 9 or 10 pm, crashing, and burying my face in huevos fritas
in the morning. I pulled all the slack through.
"It's stuck again."
Half an hour later, the rope hadn't dropped another inch, and the sun was going over the horizon. "I think we need to cut the rope, Alex."
One swipe, two swipes, and it was done. We had around fifteen rappels left to the glacier now. Without enough ice for abalakovs, we would need to make our four remaining pitons, set of nuts, and two pickets stretch, since we would need to make new stations between the in-situ anchors, which were spaced at 50m intervals.
The sun set after our second shortened rappel. We were out of pitons, so we started looking for horns to sling and pitons to pilfer from the mountain. Pitons were crucial; the rock on Churup is an altered, reddish granite which is very compact with few cracks, and most cracks would only accept knifeblades. For this reason, whenever we spotted a piton on rappel, we locked off, unracked our hammers, pounded, racked the loot, descended, and used it at the next rappel station.
Summit of Churup.
In this manner, we descended, and descended, and descended. Sometimes anchors were easy to find, sometimes it took many tens of minutes to rig something with our dwindling gear. Around 8:30 pm, I rappelled for what should have been the fourth or fifth to last time down the principal cliff band at the bottom of the face. I had started from an in-situ anchor, and as I went down, the terrain steepened to nearly vertical. I reached the end of the line, but not the end of the cliff. I locked off, brightened my headlamp, and started looking, habitually, for our next anchor. Obviously, there would be no in-situ anchor here; the rappel from the one above was meant to be 50 or 60m, and I had descended maybe twenty-five. There was a little rock visible a few meters to the right, so I swung in an arc, dug in with my crampons, and took a look. Nothing. Nothing resembling a crack, fracture, or weakness. Whatever, I thought, I will excavate.
I excavated for one hour and opened up a huge swathe of rock. Nothing. I swung left 7 or 8 meters and repeated the process on another patch of exposed rock. Another hour later, nothing. Desperate for anything, I looked in the thicker section of ice between the rock patches for decent ice for a v-thread, but my twenty-two bottomed out and the ice peeled with alarming ease. No, I would have to go back up. I attached two klemheists to the rope, and I went up.
When I arrived at the last station, my feet were throbbing painfully, I was drained, and my throat felt like a carpet of rusty old nails. Alex was shivering from two hours of standing still. We didn't think we could continue straight down for lack of anchors, so we did the only thing we could; we went higher.
Alex led up and left, the idea being that we could traverse back into our line of ascent, which was more conducive to anchors. A pitch later, I joined Alex at a two-piton belay. We were ragged and weren't talking much, but we managed a couple of mirthful exclamations of "chingada tu burro" before he rappelled out of sight. I recognized where we were: the top of the fourth pitch. We were going to get down soon.
Taken around 11pm to ascertain the time.
Around this time, I saw two headlamps fire up at the laguna
adjacent to camp--blue lights--and they started bobbing slowly up-valley, still very far below. I watched them for a long time, through the brain-dead, syrupy land of fatigue and pitch-black night, the yellow streetlights of Huaraz twinkling so far away that they seemed to be projected on a flat screen at infinity. I watched, I shivered. What time is it? This is taking too long, I thought. I will turn my headlamp off to make time pass more quickly. I turned it off, and I dozed.
I don't know how much time passed. Something tugged sharply at my waist--my weight came on the anchor--and I woke up.
I joined Alex at the next station. Four more, we told ourselves. That's it. It was 3 am.
Alex rappelled down again to make the next station. Without conversation to anchor my deliriously tired and thirsty self to the actual rate of change of time, I went reeling into another timeless, eternal session of looking: the little blue lights turned this way and that, winking out now and then, reappearing, growing by imperceptibly small increments larger and larger. I turned my light off and started to shiver. I dozed off again.
Jerked back into the present by communication, I instinctively threaded the rope through my rappel device, took up the slack, unclipped from the anchor, and descended sharply right, passing through the incredible third pitch indifferently. The next station consisted of an ancient piton and two micronuts rated to 2 kN each. Another eternity. The little blue lights bobbed up and down, left and right, tracing complicated zigzags against the black canvas of night.
At the next station, there was no station. As the night wore on, it seemed to get darker; whether this was the disappearance of the half-moon over the horizon or the beclouding of our senses by delirium and fatigue, I don't know--but we found it harder and harder to see potential stations. We found it harder and harder to work with what we found: we had no pitons anymore, a handful of nuts--mostly too large--and one remaining picket.
The route, as ascended and descended.
"There's no station?"
"No, just a stubby screw in shitty ice."
"Belay me. I'll downclimb to the next anchor."
I remembered where we were: halfway up the rock runnel of the second pitch. There was a three-piton belay forty or fifty feet below us. I downclimbed with great care, since the belay was a single stubby, and I was suddenly quite awake and alert.
At last: the second belay. We rappelled diagonally down and left. The lights were very close: near the last crevasse before the bergshrund. We coiled the rope and traversed fifty or sixty degree snow until the runnel which leads to the bergshrund. We downclimbed this until the snow became harder, and I drove in a picket with great difficulty. I clipped it, threaded the rope, and we rappelled through a cliff adjacent to the bergshrund. The blue lights were illuminating us.
"Who is it? Are you here to rescue us? Don't worry, we're OK. Our rope got stuck."
"Nah man, we're here to climb Churup. You're OK? We saw the lights over dinner and they were still up there when we woke up. We were getting worried. Want some hot tea?" Dave smiled at us.
"You don't need it?"
"Nah, we brought a stove to brew for ourselves. Drink up!"
Oh, I wish I could remember that moment fondly. If the cracked, parched desert mud, drinking its first rainwater since summer, feels like my throat did then, then its lamentation is the greatest sorrow of nature. But we drank, because we had to drink, and after we bade them good luck, we trundled off down the glacier like rickety old machines, no remaining measures of grace. The sky turned violet with the approaching sunrise. I stopped to urinate on the slabs and lost Alex. I descended a gully instead of the slabs and followed a stream back to camp. Alex wasn't there. I turned around, and I saw a red object high on the slabs. Did Alex have a red jacket? I thought it was purple. No, yes, he has a red belay parka. It's Alex.
At 7:30 am, I took off my boots, entered my bag, and slept so, so sweetly.