Peruvian Adventure 5/18/2006-6/28/2006
5/29/2006: Ishinca Base Camp: Elevation gain past two days 6,129, total elevation gain IVT 16,293 ft.
Last night was cold and moist, leaving a thick layer of
frost lining the inside of the tent. As
I unzipped the tent the frost came apart in to tiny crystals and floated down
like a like snow. The experience of the past
two days already seems distant and a bit unreal. I had successfully soloed up my final goal in
When I arrived in the valley I was not obsessed with the successful completion of this climb and in fact didn’t really believe I would make it. In the weeks prior to my attempt, there had been too many failures by too many experienced climbers to feel confident, but each day of climbing made me feel stronger and I always felt relaxed about the whole deal.
In the past three weeks twenty people had gone to high camp and failed to make the summit including two Russians, two Canadian teams, two teams from Italy and a couple of Spaniards. Just two days before I went to high camp a Peruvian guide and his Italian client had made the summit, but said it was very cold, miserable and difficult.
When I packed up my gear to move from the quabrado to the Tocllaraju high camp I took everything I would to make the summit, but also took the attitude that just spending a night at high camp would be an experience in its self.
Backing up my 50 lbs of gear for the hike to high camp on Tocllaraju
Peruvian trail makers only have two directions that they go, up and down. The trip from the valley to high camp was 3,000 ft of the former with added attractions such as boulder and ice fields. Hauling a 50 lb pack up this was definitely on my top ten for hard things that I have done. As I approached the location of the camp I could see two people gradually gaining on me from below. When they caught me I was relieved to see it was two Peruvian guides who were there to set up camp for four Spaniards who were on there way.
I set up my one man BAP tent on a rocky area just feet from
the tongue of the glacier that I would be ascending in the morning. Eloy, the top guide and his assistant set up
the other groups’ tents and then headed up the mountain to scout out the safest
path to get through the lower mountain difficulties. What had stumped the other climbers was not
the higher elevation challenges, but just getting from the lower mountain to
the summit ridge. Heavy snows and
avalanches through the wet season had blocked off the
My tent at high camp with the summit and west face of Tocllaraju in the background
Over the next couple of hours everyone arrived in camp and readied themselves for an early start in the morning. Our little camp now had four Barcelonans, two Peruvians and me. I melted up some ice and snow for dinner and next day hydration and was ready to luxuriate in my bag for a four hour rest when I discovered my pad had gone flat. The only thing I could figure was that I had nicked the pad on a granite outcropping on the way up. Using careful deduction I figured out where the most likely spot for a puncture would be and applying “Duct tape use #497, repair of sleeping mat” I managed to seal the leak with duct tape I had wrapped around my hiking pole.
With my nights rest ensured I boiled up some water for my freeze dried spaghetti and meat ball dinner, incidentally one of the best meals I have ever eaten, packed for the morning, and crawled in to the bag for four hours of non-sleep.
1 AM came right at 1 AM. I was already fully dressed in everything I had so all I had to do was boil up a little water for oatmeal, throw on the pack and I was off in to uncharted waters. The Spaniards were right behind me. One of them was having too much problem with the attitude and decided not to go up, but the other three were in good spirits.
I had a pretty good idea of the route and could follow Eloy’s tracks from last night through the lower portion coming up to the summit ridge. My pace was quit a bit faster than the group’s so with in minutes I was on my own on the side of this big mountain.
About 1,000 ft up I came to a crevasse that was only about 1’ wide. I lay down on my belly and looked in with my head lamp to make sure the edges didn’t undercut. Other than being bottomless it looked pretty straight forward, but I decided to wait and make sure this was the correct path. When I back tracked I could see five headlamps about 500 ft below and coming up slowly. I dug a snow pit and waited. It took about an hour, but they arrived right at my spot and proceeded to cross the crevasse exactly where I had been.
One of the Spanish crew was having a hard time with the altitude, but he was determined to make it to the top. I hung with the group until we came to the crux of the lower mountain, an 80 ft ice climb that went up to the summit ridge. It was actually a relief going from slogging up steep snow/ice slopes to doing some technical climbing. I moved up the climb steadily until I came to a four foot overhanging roof that I could not find a way through. From below in the dark I could here Eloy saying “abajo, derecha, abajo, derecha”, down and right, down and right. I moved down a couple of feet and found a horizontal up-sloping split in the ice that led up in to the darkness and hopefully the summit ridge.
The ice climb at 2:30 AM illuminated by the headlamp
The ice climb at 1 PM illuminated by sunlight
The snow and ice were in excellent condition and I moved carefully upward until I finally crested the ridge and I know I was on my way. I suddenly realized that I was both physically and mentally exhausted from the effort and relieved that I was on route. It was now about 3 AM inky dark and moonless. I decided later that the dark was my friend on this last section since a visual awareness of was beneath me would have immensely increased the mental exhaustion. It would take the guided group about two hours to move through the ice climb so I just slowly climbed upward along the ridge. My headlamp had about an eight foot reach so I tried to keep the western drop-off on the ridge just with in my light beam. I knew that I had to stay close enough to the ridge so I didn’t lose sight of it, but not too close since the other side was a near vertical drop of 500-1,500 ft.
At 4:20 AM at 18,600 ft I realized that I could not be certain of my path and I could not yet see the summit for orientation. I again dug a snow trench and with my back pack and pad under me and my rope coiled on top I snuggled in for a cold hour waiting for the sun to rise over the Amazon basin and hit the summit of Tocllaraju. I was able to eat and drink, and other than the cold was pretty comfortable. The sky was crystal clear and had the same slurry of stars that I had noticed the first night up Urus Este. It seemed like every few seconds a shooting star would enter our atmosphere and end its hundred million year life span in a fraction of a second as it vaporize in a streak across the heavens.
Right on schedule at 5:30 AM a slow glow developed in the
east over the
The Amazon highlands sighted along the summit ridge looking east from Tocllaraju
At this moment, more important than the entire Amazon, was the location of the summit of Tocllaraju. This too was now clearly visible and confirmed that my path last night was slightly off route. I backed tracked a about 200 meters and was now only a few 100 ft below the summit cone and the final technical challenges. It was still not full light and looking down I could see the headlamps of the group coming up and could pick out the combination of slow relaxed Spanish of the Peruvian guides and the more rapid precise Spanish of the Europeans.
I was now at 19,000 ft and it was at this location that Skip, my friend from Mama Mesas in Huaraz, said that I would encounter an improbable looking gaping crevasse. He said to climb down in to the crevasse and there was an easy exit on the back side that would take you to the final summit cone. I went up to the crevasse and began to descend, when it became clear that the exit he described had been avalanched in and was no longer an option. I again back tracked and found a nice steep path to the base of the cone.
There were still two technical challenges left, both in the form of short vertical bergshrunds, or ice walls. The first was about forty feet up the summit cone skirt and was further protected by a crevasse running the length of its base. It appeared that there was a snow bridge on the far left and I traversed over to check it out. The view and exposure was directly down the west face 2,000 ft, but the snow was rotten and wouldn’t hold a axe or crampon. I then followed the base of the burgshrund and the crevasse right until the crevasse narrowed to an easy step across and the ice quality improved.
I chipped away a few ice chandeliers and climbed the eight feet of slightly overhanging ice to a 60-70 degree slope. Most of this slope was good quality. My concentration was so focused on the my four points of contact and the four feet in front of me that I lost all awareness of the fatigue. I moved just as fast as was possible, but never stopped moving. One hundred and thirty feet later I was at the second burgshrund. This obstacle was more formidable than the first burgshrund with an eight foot ice roof protecting the exit. There was an old snow stake driven deep in to the ice and I backed this up with a couple of good ice screws and just hung for thirty seconds. This pause and break from the focus of climbing rapidly brought my fatigue to the conscious level and I quickly realized that if I did not keep going that I might hang here all day.
The left hand picture is the
entire West face and the right hand picture is the
the summit cone of
the flip side east face.
Points to where I am
roughly on both images
The obvious exit from this point was not over the eight foot ice roof, but traversing left and up from there. The ice on the traverse was as good as any waterfall ice I had climbed in the States and soon I was looking up what I hoped was the last 100 feet to the summit. The snow and ice became variable with some solid ice and some air filled granular snow. I could get two solid points, but never three. The climb was in a vertical trough with the right hand side being a flair ice that was thin enough that I could see light from the rising sun pass through it like a stain glass window. I can honestly say I was never scared, but I have never been closer to being terrified. The wall between calm and terror had become so thin that the only thing that propped it up was calm and focus.
Finally I stepped, or more accurately crawled, on to the final summit ridge. I laid there for a few minutes and enjoyed the relief as much as the accomplishment. Because it was early season the snow on the summit had not consolidated so there was a foot or two of loose granular snow. I walked the last few hundred yards up a gentle slope to the summit and took in the cloudless 360 degree view of the Cordillera Blanca. I was alone there and any sign of previous summiteers had been blown away by the wind. I descended off the summit back to the summit ridge and dug in a snow trench to escape the wind and wait for the other party to reach the top.
Since I had not heard or seen the Spaniards in hours I had a sudden rush of anxiety. As Joe Simpson points out in Touching the Void, 80% of alpine climbing deaths occur on the descent. I still had to descend, and with one snow stake and no solid snow or ice at the summit, unless the Spanish group summitted I could be faced with down climbing the summit cone. I knew there was no way I was going to down climb, so I devised a plan that would sacrifice my backpack as an anchor for the repel.
The planning did successfully burn up some time and fortunately was of no value beyond that. Eloy crested the summit about one hour later and with in three hours all of the party was standing at the top. We devised an anchor that allowed everyone to repel the upper pitch, with the exception of Eloy who down climbed while I belayed the rope in from below. The rope was more for psychological support than real support since a tumble at the top would have still allowed a 200 ft fall.
One more repel and I was off the summit cone and on down the mountain. I reversed my climb back to the top of the ice fall where a fixed snow stake had been placed. I repelled that and looked back at what I had climbed at 2:30 AM that morning in the dark. An hour later I was back in high camp. I ate a little, melted some ice for water, packed up my camp and started down to base camp 3,000 ft below.
When I got back to base camp I met a couple of French climbers who treated me to a cola. A lone guide named Eduardo cooked me up a home made vegetable and rice dish. Eduardo spoke pretty good English and was provided some good company.
Eduardo and I standing behind my nearly broken camp and in front of a sun drenched Tocllaraju
That night slept pretty well on my deflated pad and at 10 AM sharp Fidel showed up with his burros and we packed up for the hike back to Pashpa. In Pashpa I made friends with some local children by giving away the remainder of my Chips Ahoy cookies.
My new found Chips Ahoy friends
Eduardo joined me and we shared a ride back to Huaraz where I checked back in to Mama Mesas and took a heavenly hot shower.