My Return to Peru
This climbing trip was—as the Scottish say—PURE DEAD BRILLIANT. It was a rich experience of physical exhaustion, mental fortitude, family bonding, tasty food, cultural festivals, and mountain top triumphs!
Less significant climbing successes in the summer of 2000 on Cotapaxi Ecuador (19,347 ft, 5,897 m, rated PD) and Chichani near Ariquipa, Peru (19,931 ft,6,075 m, rated F) left me itching to return to South America for greater adventure. When my brother Chris—14 years my senior—invited me to join him and his super-fit teenaged sons for a Peruvian adventure, I leapt at the chance to return.
We selected the Cordillera Blanca due to enthusiastic recommendations here on SummitPost and our desire to move beyond climbing volcanoes. Tocllaraju and the Ishinca Valley were a natural choice due to their proximity to Huaraz and intermediate difficulty. We chose wisely. These climbs allowed us to have an epic mountain adventure without overly neglecting our businesses or families waiting for us back in the USA.
Aclimitization in Macchu Picchu
We acclimatized in Cusco and the Sacred Valley with a non-profit group called Eagle Condor Humanitarian. Their mission is to involve American teenagers in sustainable development projects. We worked with locals to build a school's greenhouse garden. It was a rewarding experience and some of our best memories are playing with the local indigenous kids.
We noshed on alpaca (yum!) and guinea pig (yuck!). We had a remarkable experience in the Sacred Valley when our bus was boxed in by an all-night Inca cultural celebration complete with brass bands, colorful costumes, and bizarre masks. It was like stepping into the pages of National Geographic. We capped this portion of the trip with day in Macchu Picchu and a soak in the Aguas Calientes hot springs adjacent to the raging Urubamba River. Macchu Picchu and the Sacred Valley live up to the hype!
We left Macchu Picchu and our new Eagle Condor friends for the jagged white mountains that are the Cordillera Blanca. There is no direct route from Cusco to Huaraz. We had to return to Lima where we were picked up by our stud mountain guide, Victor Sanchez of Peru Mountain Explorers. He drove us up the dusty Peruvian coast through and over a variety of climate zones to Huaraz—the gateway to the Cordella Blanca. The drive was highlighted/lowlighted by corrupt cops wanting bribes for ticky tack "violations."
Success in the Ishinca Valley
We arrived at sunset in Huaraz in awe of the massive glacier topped mountains. I've seen many great mountains in Europe, North and South America, but nothing as grand as this!
The next morning, we started our mountain adventure in the Ishinca Valley. At Collon we loaded down the burros and hit the dusty trail for base camp. We were in complete awe of the surrounding mountains. Hurazacan is well over 22K feet. It's the biggest mountain I've ever seen. But it doesn't stop there. Unlike Rainier, Denali, or Cotapaxi there is a whole range of gnarly peaks. Some rounded, some straight up ice walls, some pointy peaks...unreal. It was fun to see the locals herding sheep, cows, alpacas, and crazed Peruvian pigs. There were majestic semi-wild horses running up the valley. We covered about 9 miles and climbed to our base camp at 14.5k ft. We all felt great, with limited altitude sickness, and very little fatigue.
The next morning we woke up at 1:27am, before our scheduled 1:30 wake up—stoked to for our acclimatization climb of the Southwest Ridge of Ishinca (rated PD-). However, my gut was reacting to the food, the altitude, and the sleep deprivation. After a breakfast of 2 runny eggs and bread slathered in this wildly fragrant honey, we hit the trail with too many of our layers on. The initial part of the climb was steep and dusty. We quickly needed to shed layers. The full moon lit the cloudless sky as we climbed in silence. I manically swung from “this is frickin’ awesome!”
to "what am I doing here?"
There were moments in the dark that we climbed some very steep sections. It reminded me of my training climbs in the Tiger Mountain back in my hometown of Issaquah Washington. Yet, my bowels were wreaking havoc on me, something you can't train for. I did a substantial "download at the internet cafe" while protected from the wind by some big granite boulders.
Shortly thereafter we hit the snow and donned our crampons. Mine covered my size 13s like a menacing toothy grin. From here the 20.5k ft above sea level square rock throne of Ranrapalca dominated the southern sky. We eased our way across the Ishinca glacier in awe as the daylight revealed the spectacular surroundings as we ascended above 18k ft.
The final 20 ft of Ishinca is an exposed step that requires one to block out the danger, trust the rope and ice axe. We arrived and I said in all seriousness, "donde esta la cumbre?"
(where is the summit?). Because we were actually on the summit, I got a lot of flack for that stupid comment. My altimeter watch was off by 400 ft and I always leave lots of mental and physical fuel in the tank for the decent and future climbs.
We summited around 10am. From the top, we repelled down a pitch. It wasn't totally necessary, but it was good prep for what we would encounter on our main goal—Tocllaraju (rated D by some, due to difficulties at the summit pyramid). The Ishinca decent was hard, not because the terrain was terribly difficult, but due to my infirm bowels, the intermittent heat/cold wind, and the lack of food/water. Because they had consistently over-fed us up to that point, we assumed our local guides would have food for us at the foot of the glacier. No dice. Needless to say, we arrived back to base camp pretty hungry and beat around 2pm.
For the next 20 hours we rested, stretched sore muscles, and ate. Our guide insisted we abstain for Diamox because...“it is no good! You have to drink the Coca Tea.”
Although, we followed all of his other advice, we chose to do the opposite and it worked out swimmingly. After 2 days in the Ishinca Valley, the clouds have finally lifted off Tocllaraju. It was nothing short of spectacular! A perfect summit of smooth, steep ice and snow.
The pillowy glacier snow of Tocllaraju formed what looked like a smirking mouth—like The Sorting Hat at Hogwarts. I imagined it taunting us saying “You think you can climb me, eh? Well, you will just have to see if I will allow you to stand on my summit!”
In retrospect, these zany thoughts may have been high-altitude hallucinations.
We left for the high-camp feeling rested, ready, and a bit scared/unsure of what the next 36 hrs would bring. The climb to the high camp took 4 hours. We arrived at 5pm. It was surprisingly beautiful to climb up through the glacier moraine and admire the various plants as the altitude increased. There was a cross monument for 3 Dutch climbers who were killed in 2004 climbing the direct route. We climbed the Northwest Ridge.
We made our high camp on the highest point of the flat glacier ridge, knowing this would shorten our summit day. The high camp was set on the glacier with commanding views of the entire northern part of the Cordillera Blanca. After forcing some hot noodle soup down, we retired to our cold tent at 7pm. No sleep...too cold, air too thin at 17.5k ft, and too many urges to pee. We were so glad I brought a pee bottle saving us from venturing outside the warmish confines of the tent. Not a great night...lots of anticipation, fear, excitement, curiosity about the summit push at 2am. I gave up on trying to sleep at midnight and looked at photos of my wife and kids. They seemed so far away on this Father’s Day.
We got up at 1am. So glad I didn't have to lie in the cold tent anymore. I successfully cleared my bowels in the snow toilet (a hole that was dug for us). No need to worry about that. Nice. Climbing is such a crazy game of deprivation, endurance, nature’s forces, will, and some skill. Yet, it’s that very deprivation and endurance that makes it so rewarding; leaving me so grounded to my place in the universe and my good standing before a loving God. I just can’t replicate that at home while sitting on my sofa.
We hit our first moment of insanity at about 3:30am. A bottleneck at the 1st bergshrund, we got stuck behind 2 Chileans trying to navigate the ambiguous route. We stood in teeth-chattering speechlessness waiting our turn in the frozen darkness. At this moment of gripping self-doubt, Victor gave us THE pivotal pep talk in his accented Spanish. “Why did you come to Peru? You came TO GET THE SUMMIT!”
This pumped us up and sharpened our focus.
The initial 15 ft after the bergshrund is 70 degrees—virtually straight up. My ice axe seemed worthless because the snow was "sugary" here. I was the first in the group to go. I made it. It was crazy. A rush of adrenaline swept over my frozen body, I swept aside my thoughts of quitting. After the initial section, there was a 120 foot pitch was 65 degrees or so with marginally defined boot steps. We had to jam our ice axe down like a staff in order to provide stabilization support. The altitude and extreme exertion made my heart feel like it was going to leap out of my chest. Seriously. We vowed to take the next steep sections slower to prevent a coronary, even if it meant lingering in a precarious steep spot for a longer time.
After clearing this section I was speechless about the experience, exhaustion, and the fact that I could actually summit this bad boy. Chris and I didn't speak (we didn’t want to waste energy), we both knew this was pushing us to the max. We continued to climb. The horizon started to lighten. The sun was rising. Warmth, light...oh yeah. My spirits started to soar! We crossed over quite a few crevasses and passed some multi-story building sized ice seracs. At 7am we arrived at the final test before the summit. The 1.25 pitches (150 feet or so) of 65 degree steepness. This time at well over 19k ft. Was this possible?
I had begun to trust that the toe points of my crampons and my ice axe slammed into the loosely consolidated snow would hold me on the mountain. Not to mention, I was supported by Victor the climbing rockstar. Now only 500 relatively easy feet to the small pointy summit. We made it!
Surprisingly, tears streamed down my cheeks as I thought about my wife, my kids…and my deceased mother and father. They were with us in spirit. It was Father’s Day and I had done the hardest physical/mental thing I had ever done. The view was 360 degrees of stunning mountains, lakes and glaciers.
Going down presented some challenges. Up top the sun was hot and we rappelled down the steep parts and had to jump crevasses. There were moments of extended hot and extended cold depending on the sun, clouds, and wind. We arrived back at high camp totally spent. We were greeted with hugs and whoops of congratulations from the two porters and the cook. We rested for an hour, broke camp and headed down to the thick air of 14.5k base camp. It took 2.5 hours of rock scrambling across the glacier moraine to arrive back. My nose started to bleed badly due to the altitude and deep breathing of dry air.
Blood all over my clothes, but I had summited! Besides my clothes were already filthy so I didn't care that much. I went down on my own…freed from the ropes, crampons and harness. It felt good to reflect on the climb and admire the surroundings. I especially liked the Andean flowers and plants. I was cold, bloody, and utterly spent that evening. The cook made us jello...perfect of an infirm stomach. I slept satisfied; like a log. What a day!
If Tocllaraju were in North America or Europe it would be the quintessential climb. With size 5k ft taller than Mt Blanc or Rainier; and similar size but easier approach and weather than Denali. Yet, it is simply one of 20 or so awesome mountains in the Cordillera Blanca.
I must come back in a few years. A trek with my wife and kids, followed by an attempt of the majestic Chopicalqui!