Close to the Summit!
To mi surprise, those few last steps were not that hard, or in other words, they were not the most difficult. I was executing all movements in an almost machine-like fashion, using the piolet as a walking stick, stepping carefully through the North summit ridge of Vallunaraju.
The end of the climbing season in Cordillera Blanca had passed already but that Wednesday 11 of November I was still hiking my way up surrounded by menacing storm clouds and very close to summit one of the easiest peaks of the range.
Easy, no way that was easy!
You can do it!
I was less than a hundred meters from the summit and I was saying to myself. Piolet! Right foot!, Left foot! …and so on until I counted up to 25 times I made a right step so that would mean 50 steps before resting for a minute or so. Up on the summit, Wilder was watching mi progress in amusement as this was a cakewalk for him. He is a guide from Huaraz but also became my comrade, life insurance and ultimately my friend.
Wilder was sitting on the summit and he made a good effort of hiding his amusement by encouraging me to continue climbing. He placed a picket for my safety up there so if I slipped to the right I wouldn’t end up several hundred meters down in the Ocshapalca/Ranrapalca glacier or in case I stepped to far to the left and the cornice to the left collapsed under my weight.
Mi guide, Wilder Yanac
Wilder Yanac, 33, was born in Huaraz and has been working in the mountains around his hometown for a decade. At first sight he doesn’t look like some of those legends we see on movies, like Ed Viesturs, Joe Simpson or even our own Richard Hidalgo, to speak of a fine local climber. Wilder is about 5 feet tall, compact complexion, looking more like a sort of stocky Peruvian Sherpa.
When I first contacted Wilder, his last name caught my attention as I knew that was the last name of the first Peruvian climbers that summated our highest mountain, Huascaran. Back in 1993, Apolonio, Pedro and Guido Yanac along with Fortunato and Felipe Mautino and Macario Ángeles were part of that epic ascent.
Wilder at our camp in Quilcayhuanca
Wilder confirmed that he was a relative of those guys so I sort of felt part of history in my own stupid way. He has all the personal treats a good guide should have, experience, technique, knowledge of the mountain, strength and above all he is able to deal with city folks like me in search of a bit of glory and adventure of climbing one of the easier mountains close to Huaraz, undisputed capital city of alpine climbing of South America. Hey, if Austin can be the live music capital of the world…
Huaraz and Cordillera Blanca
With over 33 peaks over 5,500 meters over sea level, Cordillera Blanca is a great place for people looking for their first easy high peak and also for those looking for challenges and preparation for going to the Himalayas. Most high camps in this range are higher than the summit of Montblanc.
Huascaran (6768) is the highest tropical mountain but it is not the only notable peak in this 180km range. Alpamayo was declared in 1966 the most beautiful mountain of the world while Artesonraju is allegedly the mountain you see in the logo of Paramount Pictures.
Curiously, it is very scarcely that you see Peruvian climbers in the high peaks other than the guides, porters, arrieros and cooks. So statistically talking, Peruvian people go to the mountains to earn a living. For the Peruvian from a big city, alpinists or even hikers are perceived as eccentric if not borderline crazy.
High camp of Vallunaraju, only Peruvian there noy getting paid!
As so many things in life, ideas that most people have about mountaineering is partially right and wrong at the same time.
Each climber goes to the mountains for some specific reason: the record, the first ascent, or just because. In my case, I go the mountains to seek peace, to be closer to God (although I don’t really believe in God) and to seek simplicity away from the complexity of everyday life. In the end is all about setting a clear goal, prepare the project, and execute the best way possible. Life reduced to making the next step.
Base camps in Cordillera Blanca are really internationals, very much like airports. You cross paths and share time with Basques, Catalans, Australians, French, Slovenians, and even Brazilians. Some very seasoned climbers looking for opening a new route and others like me, looking to learn and maybe make a first summit.
Defeat in Chachani and preparation for Valluna
In July 2009, I was attempting my first 6000 in Arequipa, where I miserably failed at Chachani, an easy volcano. My failure was due to my insufficient level of fitness and really strange and bad weather at the time. Chachani is a normally dry place with close to no snow but before I went there, heavy snow storms left loose snow up to the waist in some places.
Miserable returning from Chachani!
After that failure, I set a more modest goal (how wrong I was), in my ignorance I thought that a lower peak would be easier, something that is not true necessarily. After seeking for a while I contacted wilder and he told me to test myself in Vallunaraju (5686) and if I liked it we could try other peaks to gain some experience before attempting 6000+ peaks.
Coming back from Chachani, I worked up a lot to improve my fitness level for the adventure of my life up to then. I would bike to work everyday and would go to the Sierra of Lima once or twice a month, in that way I lost over 10 kilos in a five month period and felt quite fit. By November I was fitter than I ever was, I am by no means an athlete but I felt quite comfortable with the idea of returning and trying to climb a mountain again. The frequency of the emails with Wilder increased as the date of my trip to Huaraz approached, what to bring, where to stay, lots of things to sort out.
Luckily enough, Wilder calmed me down and explained me that he would take charge of all details. I only needed to buy the bus tickets from Lima to Huaraz and find a room to stay for one night, the night between the trek to Quilcayhuanca and before the travel to Quebrada Llaca.
Travel to Huaraz and The Plan
Friday, November 6 arrived and after one more tedious day at my job (I work at a bank) I couldn’t wait one more minute to board the Cruz del Sur bus and arrive to Huaraz. Weeks ago I had put a photo of Vallunaraju on my cubicle wall to psyche myself every day with the idea of being on top of that peak soon. My backpack was ready days ago and after saying goodbyes to my family I finally took the taxi to the Javier Prado Cruz del Sur bus station.
The bus departs at 9:30 p.m. and it was really a good decision to pay extra for the “bus cama”. As soon as I lay back on the bus seat I started to fell asleep while hearing "One Summer's Day" part of the soundtrack of "Spirited Away" the film by Hayao Miyasaki, composed by Joe Hisaishi. The sensation of venturing into a dream world while falling asleep was great. I was leaving everyday world and getting into a better one, more pure and noble.
I woke up closet o Recuay, 25 km. South from Huaraz at 5 a.m. and wasn’t able to sleep again. Would Wilder be waiting for me as agreed? I saw no clouds so it looked that good weather was going to be with us and our plan had good chances of working.
Roughly, the plan was to leave for Quebrada Quilcayhuanca immediately after my arrival to Huaraz. This is a nice acclimatization trek, we were going to camp at 4400. After that we would return to Huaraz and I would stay at a Hotel there for the night. Next day we would go to quebrada LLaca, camp one day at 4500 and then go to high camp at 4950 stay one night there, go for some ice climbing lessons in the nearby glacier and end up pushing for the summit the last night. All in all, six days five nights.
Many people do Vallunaraju in two half days and a night but based on my Chachani experience I decided to have proper acclimatization as I live in Lima at sea level.
Arrival to Huaraz and getting to Quilcayhuanca
As soon as I set put on the bus station in Huaraz, I saw Wilder, whom I recognized instantly from photos I saw on the web and also he had a small banner with my name on it. We shook hands and went to his home in Jiron Caraz, just a block and a half from Luzuriaga, Huaraz’s main street. It was 7:30 a.m.
After buying food and white gas, we went to the combi station for Pitec in the intersection of Caraz and Luca y Torre, three blocks from Wilder’s home. Off we went with some locals and a couple of Catalans.
Combis from this place depart every 30 minutes or so. The road to Pitec is quite busy as many tourists go there to do the Pitec circuit and visit Churup. If you like to hike and sweat a lot you can start to hike in Llupa, a small town half an hour from Huaraz and then hike up to Pitec, at 3750. This mini hike should take about an hour.
We preferred, lazy bastards, to take the combi up to Pitec as I was more interested in sleeping at altitude than into the hike itself. From Pitec to the control post of Parque Nacional Huascaran it’s about 3 km. this is done really fast as it implies following the road. One of the things that caught my attention is that the guys that collect entrance fees in these posts (there is one at the entrance of each quebrada in the National Park) may or may not be authorized to collect the 65 soles fee to enter. If there is nobody authorized at the post you can enter. In fact, a guy was there but was not authorized so we were able to climb a wall left of the main entrance. I would think this is common out of season.
Quilcayhuanca is quite different to other quebradas I have visited in Lima’s sierra. It is quite wide and has a very gentle slope, so the river make curves just as river in our jungle do. So the hike itself is very easy and the only thing you need to be careful is not to fall while watching the amazing scenery of Andavite, Tulparaju and Cayesh, the peaks that dominate the eastern part of the quebrada.
Qulcayhuanca and a horse story
The trail is easy to find and consists of following the left side, the right side of the quebrada has water holes and a lot of cattle. The whole zone is a feeding graze for sheeps, cows, horses and donkeys. So as in other parts of Huascaran National Park, tons of manure along the trail and the water needs to be treated before drinking it.
After three hours of nice and easy hike, we arrived to Tambo Nuevo, a camping place after a small steeper slope and properly marked with one of those brown signs ever present in all the National Park. The place is close to several “chulpas” from Pre Inca culture Wari to the North and several waterfalls to the South coming from the glaciers uphill.
Before arriving to Tambo Nuevo we saw a very sad scene. A foal was standing next to its death mother that obviously had died while or shortly after giving birth to the foal. The poor animal was trying to suck milk from the dead body of its mother. We thought that one of the shepherds would take save him from a sad death that night.
We arrived very early to our camp place and as we didn’t want to leave our staff alone as the shepherds may take some of our gear, we went to sleep quite early instead of venturing further up on the quebrada. So after having some nice pasta we went to sleep. I always have problems sleeping at altitude, mainly because I can’t seem to find a comfortable position. I spend the night thinking about what could have happened to the poor foals we found.
The next day we departed on our way to Huaraz at 9 AM. After a few minutes we found out about the poor foal. We saw the mare alone and the foal a few meters away and dead with signs of some condors having paid a visit already. We felt bad for this small tragedy but such is life in our Puna, it is a tough place.
Back to Pitec, we waited a lot for our ride back to Huaraz so I focused on draining two horrible blisters I developed in my feet on the way down from Tambo Viejo. After having a nice chat with some of Wilder’s friends we decided to not wait longer and hike our way down to Llupa, we did this quite fast as it was very hot and I was dying for some cold Inca Kola, our national pride and very yellow soda. Weather so far was on our side having enjoyed two splendid and sunny days.
We took a combi in Llupa and went back to Huaraz quite fast, I felt quite happy with the nice hike and looking forward to going to Llaca the next day.
Back to Huaraz and off we go to Llaca
Back to Wilder’s, we separated for a while as I went for a walk around Huaraz and have proper lunch before heading for a cheap hotel as close to downtown as I could get as I was going to stay there for one night.
I had an o.k. pepper steak. at Piccolo, located in a small inner square close to the city’s main square and Parque Ginebra, where the Casa de Guias is located. This is a zone very frequented by tourists and climbers and I would guess that the place should be quite crowded in July. After that I booked a room at Eccame, a cheap hotel a block away from El Tambo and Café Andino.
After picking up my luggage plus the plastic boots/crampons from Wilder’s, I walked around Luzuriaga for a while and then went for dinner+beer to Café Andino, quite a nice place where I had a Lomo Saltado and a couple of cuzqueñas. I spent most of the time reading old editions of Climbing magazine. The place has excellent views of the surrounding peeks and will definitely return in future visits to Huaraz.
I returned to my room at about 10 p.m. and fell asleep fairly quickly after the close to none sleeping time I had in Quilcayhuanca.
I woke up very early as I had to search for Moleskin for my blisters, which proved impossible to find. I was lucky to find some similar tape at one of the many tourist agencies around Luzuriaga. Vladimiro Hinostroza, the tour operator, was preparing gear for a couple of Aussies that were going to Valluna that same day and was kind enough to help me with my feet.
We departed from the hotel in a white Toyota station wagon at 9 AM, your typical taxi in Peru these days. After buying food and white gas yet again, we took Centenario Avenue and the road to Wilcahuain, a splendidly preserved group of ruins 30 minutes from Huaraz. The complex is one of the few in Peru with two-story buildings. Hiking from Huaraz to Wilcahuain is also an o.k. acclimatization trail if you don’t mind sharing the route with mini vans. I wasn’t in the mood for ruins (if you hike Peru you find ruins everywhere) so we continued following the dirt road to quebrada Llaca.
Just a couple of minutes after Wilcahuain, Quebrada Cojup is visible and the road turns steeper, so the freaking taxi goes very slow. Despite the slow progress, it doesn’t take much time to enter Quebrada Llaca and have the first views of the mean-looking Ocshapalca (5888) and Ranrapalca (6162). Large forests of Quenuales dominate the valley which is a good thing as the species is endangered.
Once we reached the entrance to the National Park, we found a group of three girls that were also going to climb Vallunaraju that night along with the Aussies. This time around we paid the 65 soles for the Park fee after waiting for the guides from the all-girl group to properly show their credentials to the guy collecting the fees. It took a while, which I used to phone my wife (good signal there), but we eventually were able to enter the Quebrada.
Twenty minutes inside Llaca, we saw that the girls’ mini van stopped and saw them starting to hike up to high camp, meaning they where going to push for the summit that night. We were not in a hurry and preferred to make camp next to the refuge at the end of the road (4450).
Don't mess with the bulls at Llaca
After setting up camp, we went up to explore the surroundings of the Llaca lagoons, two grey-ish lagoons formed by the meeting of Ocshapalca’s glacier.
Freaking bulls knew what they were doing
This zone was also covered by quenuales and has a vertical face to the left where some climber practice trad climbing (you can see some of the gear left on the face)and to the right a slope that takes you to views of the glacier, the peaks and the lagoon. The view from this place was quite amazing, at least for me.
The place was huge, so huge I wasn’t able to take a single picture covering everything, I felt quite small and peaceful. Our acclimatization plan was working as I felt really fine and happy.
Our view of the glacier and lagoon
The ice wall that marks the end of the glacier has to be like 30 meters high and it became evident very soon that the glacier was like a living thing. It made noises as it slowly moved and parts of it collapsed forming mini icebergs on the lagoon. This is a place where some groups go to learn ice-climbing. In fact we were able to see in the distance a group of at least a dozen climbers practicing. They looked like ants from where we were sitting.
We said goodbye to our driver and gave him instructions to como for us on Thursday as we were planning to have one day of ice-climbing school in Vallunaraju on Wednesday before the summit push.
I decided to pay a visit to the ice climbers so Wilder and I went through the other side of the road, left from the Refugio and up to the dam that controls outflows from the lagoons. Wilder stood there and I ventured through the (northern) slopes of the lagoon and crossed paths with the group of climbers that we saw before. No point in continuing so I went back to camp.
When I arrived to camp, I noticed something was going wrong. Wilder was angry and what had happened is that a bull had invaded our tent and eaten two gloves plus half our food and chewed on his replacement first layer shirt. He told me..Ismael, now we have to practice survival! I wasn’t that worried as the gudes in Huraz are usually friends so the chiks’ guides or the Aussies were most probably going to leave us any leftover they had at the high camp…we had to make sure we were there before they returned from summit.
Not happy with messing around with our food and gear, 7 or 8 bulls decided to make camp with us and spent all night sniffing the tent and sometimes pushing the tent as well. They spent some time fighting between them and were very loud. I wasn’t able to sleep well again but was at least “entertained” by these guys.
Valluna's high camp and surroundings
Tuesday morning came and weather seemed to be with us so after a very light breakfast we headed up to the high camp at 4950. The trail was steep in parts and we had to use a rope to pass a small section. I continued feeling quite good despite the heavy backpack and was delighted with the views of Ocshapalca and Ranrapalca.
We reached high camp after two hours and were surprised to not find the girls back from summit at 11 a.m. no trace of the Aussies either but that was because they came down earlier and most probably were on their way to Huaraz already.
The place was perfect, with plenty of water from Vallunaraju glacier and amazing views from nearby peaks. It was also a great bird watching spot, we saw several ospreys and a condor flying very close to us.
The girls came down after noon and told us they had problems crossing a crevasse. I was impressed by their logistics, they had two porters, a cook and a guide. Lunch was waiting for them coming back from summit! Wilder and I were more frugal, so to speak.
After the girls left we went up to the Vallunaraju glacier, to practice glacier traveling, try the boots and familiarize with the piolet. The way to the glacier is made of clean stone that used to be below the glacier no long ago, obvious sign of the effects of climate change. When we reached the glacier I felt quite like the beginner I was, learning to walk up a steep slope of hard ice with crampons wasn’t that easy. (Black) ice happens to be quite hard and it took me a while to learn to use the crampons and tools together to be secured while climbing up. Eventually I managed to go up the initial slope and found myself progressing easily through a more gentle slope and eventually a flat zone. Wilder spent the rest of the time showing me how to distinguish crevasses.
The place was huge as I wasn’t able to see the summit from there. I felt again quite happy with my progress and started thinking about the summit. Some clouds started to show up, a sign of upcoming storms so we quickly decided to go for the summit that night instead of doing the ice-climbing lessons.
Ice field before slopes to the summit Beautiful views!
If things turned sour we had a chance of snow that very night. We decided to leave crampons and piolets next to the glacier so we wouldn’t need to carry them from camp again. After hiding them under a rock, we headed back to camp and prepared supper. We had some hail before dusk but only for some minutes and after that were rewarded with the alpenglow on Ocshapalca and Ranrapalca, great moments!
The summit and back to Huaraz
We went to “sleep” early as we needed to wake up at 2 a.m. to have a quick breakfast and go for the summit. It was easy to wake up as I didn’t sleep at all. Wilder prepared mate de coca and off we went. I noticed that I wasn’t seeing to well with my left eye for some reason. I thought I was sick or something and then I discovered I lost my left contact lens. Back to the tent to search for it, incredibly I found it and placed it on my contact lens container and in an inner pocket of my fleece jacket so it would hydrate before putting it back on my eye.
So I was half-blind during the approach to the glacier, this is specially challenging for me as I have problems with depth perception so the finding the delicate foot placings on the clean rocks before the glacier became a tough thing to do. Once we found our previously hidden gear, I sat down to put my contact lens back. What a difference!
We took some time to climb the first slope as it is steeper and hard ice and on top of that my right crampon fell off. I limped my way up and Wilder retrieved the lost crampon. We had no other problems after that, we roped up and started the glacier travel.
Once we reached the flat icy plain ground after the first slope we started what I would describe as a hike on ice/hard snow up the gentle slopes of Vallunaraju. I began feeling great again and had time to appreciate the views. The crescent moon was providing some light but at the same time I was able to see a lot of stars and the reflex of all this in the snow. The wind stopped blowing so it was an incredible experience to hike in almost complete silence, weather was amazing, I only had a polypropylene first layer, a fleece jacket and a windstopper softshell jacket. Snow conditions were so great I didn’t need to use gaiters although I carried a light hardshell plus gaiters just in case.
After two hours into the climb, we reached a zone below the col between the two summits with several crevasses, at the end of it we found the crevasse were the girls had trouble. Nothing great but it was impossible to go around it so we needed to jump. Uncertain of my jumping abilities, Wilder jumped across and place a picket on top of the slope after the crevasse so when I jumped he pulled me just to be sure. It ended more than two meters pass the crevasse so I guess that wasn’t really necessary.
I went up the slope and from then we went to the col where Wilder asked me:
-Ismael, please follow my steps. And please don’t look to the right, you may get a bit scared.
- Is there a abysm to the right, right?
- Yep ¿Do you get scared easily?
By that stage I had complete trust on Wilder and when he told me to go I started going up confidently following the summit ridge and I made summit in no time.
At last I made it! I made my first Cordillera Blanca summit! I left behind the defeat at Chachani and dwarfed my previous summit at Meiggs mountain (5050) out of Lima. Nevertheless something strange happened shortly after.
I started thinking about the descent, it was 7.30 a.m. and the sun wouldn’t take much time to turn the hard snow into a sticky soft thing. So after the quick photos from the summit and listening to Wilder identifying the several peaks around us we started the descent. I started thinking on my next targets, maybe Ishinca and Urus or Pisco. Luckily we had cell phone signal and called our driver and told him to pick us later that same day. We decided to ditch ice climbing school as weather forecast was not that good for Thursday.
The descent was a bit more complex as motivation sort of dwindled and it felt more as chore than as an adventure. As expected, snow started to melt quickly and got stuck on the crampons so I had to stop every other step to take it out and continue. This made the descent quite slow. Plus, the clouds finally arrived and it started snowing a bit so I felt a bit lost sometimes as I couldn’t find our steps to get back.
Eventually, with Wilder’s help, we managed to reach the end of the glacier and high camp at 11:00 a.m. For some reason, I started to feel light headed on the descent and the felt that way even when we were descending back to Llaca. We reached the taxi following a faster and steeper trail and were on our way to Huaraz at 1 p.m., returning to Huaraz at 2 p.m.
After a big roasted chicken lunch at La Estrella I was ready to return to Lima, work and family. Couldn’t stop thinking about my next visit to Huaraz. Great place.