| An Introduction to the Cordillera Blanca
An Introduction to the Cordillera Blanca
Ishinca (PD-, 5530 m), Yanapaccha (AD-, 5460 m), Tocllaraju (D, 6032 m)
July 3rd – July 14th
Partners: Michael Davis (boggyb), Abe Rigeb (Fireonthemountain)
Brad Johnson’s Classic Climbs of the Cordillera Blanca,
Skyline Adventure’s Topographic Maps of the Cordillera Blanca
Percy Dexter Hendrosa (personal communication on conditions, La Casa De Guias)
-The Peruvian Sole (S/##) is about a third of the US dollar (US##)
-Let’s just assume the best pics are Boggy’s, the moderate-to-good ones are Abe’s, and the grungy orphans are mine.
Challenging, rugged, and beautiful. Graceful cornices, forbidding spires, looming seracs, thundering booms, glistening ice, sobering deaths. A whole ‘nother league of mountaineering capable of instilling humility in even the worst of us.
For all that fear-mongering, the range provides access and peaks all abilities may enjoy. A truly unique place.
“The Cordillera Blanca is not a place to learn how to climb.”
Despite the admonition, I suppose I’d be lying if I said we had adequately prepared for this trip as a team. Fortunately, we were well practiced at head-scratching inefficiency, needless complexity, and plans drawn up on a 100% recycled napkin stained with organic beet juice.
Our crew contained three. A perfect number for Colorado. An odd man out for Peru.
General Boggs is our de facto leader. The Man with a Plan, sticking to it with stubborn resoluteness. And the most experienced with the international brand of peaks. He points us in the right direction and ensures we aren’t kidnapped by drug cartels en route.
Abe is our noob. The Noob. He hardly makes any more mistakes than the rest of us, but the mistakes he does make are accentuated by the mere coincidence of his nickname. Still, he’s the team’s heart. The Laughing One. Keeps the conversation going when tensions are high. That’s always nice.
Me? Well, I hate to admit it, but I’m likely the nagging Mother. The fun-sized, half Asian with slight IBS. As the icy crux looms, I’m the one reaching for toilet paper while others are brandishing their tools. I consider it a blessing and the blessings are frequent.
Our intended route, Artesonraju via the SE face, was out. Bogged down by an unusually heavy snow year. Avalanche alley. A 12 day trip, four of those used for travel, was all we could wean from the Man. The alternate North Ridge was time-consuming and less appealing to our party. Tack on a spot of poor weather, and we were running around with our chicken heads up on the butcher’s block.
The intended itinerary:
Wed 7/3 – Fly to Lima. Taxi to Movil Tours (station in Los Olivos: Avenida Mendiola – AV. AVENIDA ALFREDO MENDIOLA 3883). Taxi should cost ~$10. Bus leaves the Los Olivos station around 11:30pm.
Thu 7/4 – Bus arrives in Huaraz around 7am. We want to taxi to Casa de Zarela (couple $$$) (JULIO ARGUEDAS 1263 - LA SOLEDAD, PERU Huaraz) and have them keep our stuff for us. Then we will take a minibus to Pashpa if possible, or shuttle to Collon if we can't get to Pashpa. Then we hike to BC (4350m) or camp a little higher (5000m, 2-3h further). Can hire mules ($5/day) and arrieros ($10/day) if desired.
Fri 7/5 – Acclimatization hike or just go for the summit (5530m). If we summit then we may wish to hike up to Toclla ABC (5200m) or a little higher (5300m). Sleep at Ishinca BC or Toclla ABC.
Sat 7/6 – Hike to Toclla ABC or higher. Sleep at Toclla ABC.
Sun 7/7 – Summit Toclla (6032m) (NW Ridge: AD) and hike out to Pashpa. Go back to Huaraz and restock. Sleep at Casa de Zarela.
Mon 7/8 – Take a combi to Caraz (5,00S per person), walk to Paradero Paron near Plaza de Armas, then take a combi to Paron for another 5,00S. Or negotiate to go to the valley entrance for 10,00S per person to save 1 hr hiking. Or spend even more to taxi all the way to Laguna El Paron. Pay 10,00S entrance fee to the community. Optionally hire mules (15,00/d) and drivers (10,00/d) Then hike to at least Timber Camp (4400m?).
Tue 7/9 – Hike to Moraine Camp (5200m?)
Wed 7/10 – Summit Artesonraju (SE face, D+, 800m, 45-55.) or more acclimatization.
Thu 7/11 – Summit Artesonraju and hike out, or just hike out.
Fri 7/12 – Get from Paron to Huaraz or arrange to have transport in the morning.
Sat 7/13 – Transport from Paron or Huaraz to Lima.
Sun 7/14 – Fly to Denver.
Day 1 – July 3rd
The most challenging day of the trip. 6:30 AM and we’re bright, cherry, and busy re-packing bags at the airport check in. Stupid weight limits. Makes one yearn to punt a newly-born marmot.
The plane takes us to Miami. We indulge in our last American meal in a couple weeks. In typical fashion, the meal is disgusting. Canned tuna on a soggy bun complete with hot mayonnaise. I’m in love and send $15 down the corporate abyss. The next plane takes us to Lima. I’m sitting in between two overweight men “unaware” that their elbows are hovering over the rests.
Once in Lima, we collect our bags and pass through security. Unlike the USA’s five check/choke points, Lima only has one and we’re through quick, despite the randomized machine sending Abe (borderline Middle Eastern, coincidentally) off to the body cavity searchers.
The taxi ride is oddly calm. None of the accustomed swerving and death-defying, horn-blaring maneuvers. 9PM on a Wednesday. However, the driver is lost and he drives around in a few circles.
We arrive at Movil Tours, only to find the bus is two seats short. Should’ve purchased tickets in advance. We’re determined not to lose time, so Boggy, our most capable Spanish speaker, takes the remaining seat and sleeps the night away headed towards Huaraz (S/ 50), intending to make arrangements and buy gear for the next day. Abe and I grab a hotel (s/35 each) and start walking the streets. Our youthful confidence takes a dive when a gaggle of girls giggle at us when Abe attempts to order a vegetarian burger from a street vendor (S/3). The burger is still fantastic, topped with papas fritas and an arsenal of Ebola-laden sauces.
Day 2 – July 4th
Boggy sleeps at La Casa de Zarelas in comfort while Abe and I wind our ways along the Peruvian highways (S/35 each). We took the economy bus. Drug exchanges, random solicitors, and middle-of-nowhere stops abound. We travel along highways impossibly moored in large sand dunes constantly buffeted by Pacific waves. The road follows dozens of switchbacks over high passes, our bus precariously and precipitously dodging humans, other buses, and semis with skill and a less-than-fatal grace on narrow, two lane mountain roads. Several hours later, we arrive in Huaraz and are promptly gringo-taxed to the hostel (S/16 for the taxi; should’ve been S/4). We are greeted by Zarela’s and Boggy’s laughter at our dwindling funds.
Puffy mittens, jackets, stakes (estackos), rock gear, and fuel are rented for S/2-6 soles per day each. Next time, I'm traveling naked and renting everything down to underpants.
La Casa de Guias gives us the heart-breaking news – southern routes aren’t in. The weather’s still unsettled. The curse of the New Moon. It’ll clear up soon, we hope and ponder over dinner at the Guias’ restaurant (S/90 total). The meal is excellent and the information informational. Certainly makes up for the American tuna crap still plaguing our stomachs.
The tame section
Day 3 – July 5th
We give Zarela our itinerary and plan. Amazingly, she handles the rest. I’m starting to like this place. Our taxi driver, Wilder, is waiting for us immediately after breakfast. The drive to Cocha Pampa goes as smoothly as a Peruvian dirt track goes (S/75, 1.5 hr) and the mules are ready to haul our bags (S/40 for the muleteer, S/20 for each burro or horse (~80 lb,f capacity)). The 3 hr trek to the Ishinca base camp is enjoyable sans packs and the ranger gives us our park passes with hardly a question (S/65 each).
There’s a push here to go the Ecuadorian route and mandate guides for all parties. We tell the guard our sights are solely on the walk-up Ishinca. He probably knows better, but it isn't an issue this time around.
This place is a hazard sort’s fascination, to the annoyance of structural and computer geeks. Glacial Lake Outburst Floods, debris flows, landslides, avalanches, rock fall, and so forth. The ability, means, and history to kill thousands a couple dozen kilometers away in a mere 12 minutes’ time. Fascinating.
We pass our time practicing crevasse rescue, falling on our axes in the midst of cow pies at just over 14K’. The Noob’s first time experiencing the roped hell that is glacier travel. The plan is to have him go first, allowing Boggy and I to do the rope work in the event of a leader crevasse fall. Probably yet another thing we should’ve practiced back in Colorado.
Day 4 – July 6th
Our time’s running short. Our bus mishaps cost us. No time for an acclimatization hike; up we go. Ishinca it is. A beautiful beginning climb. Just over 18K’, easy glacier travel, a nice loop option, sheltered from the weather, and a stepped-out 45 degree summit pitch.
Cake. If it weren’t for the altitude.
Abe’s never experienced this before. We should’ve taken more time. Headache – Drowsy – Sleepy - Let me rest – Head down – Can’t think. He isn’t happy starting around 17,500’. But he pulls through. Up the left ridge; down the right, towards the Ranrapalca Col. Not so bad now, minus a few cliffs near the well-trodden morainal trail.
Up we go
And the summit
Down we go
The dusty trail down to camp is tiring, especially in the moon boots. The weather on Tocclaraju looks pitiful. Strong winds, blizzards, and the like.
Day 5 – July 7th
Our plan is to move to a high camp on Tocllaraju. The weather hardly begs to influence us differently. We stop by the refugio and discuss conditions while Abe eats a slice of cheesecake. A couple parties have abandoned their respective attempts, confirming terrible climbing weather up high. An Argentinian pair remains up high to attempt the West Face. Later, when the storm clears, their bodies will be found prone below a large serac.
After a brief consideration of Ranrapalca, we decide the jump in both elevation and technical difficulty is imprudent. We pack out, utilizing a single burro and carrying the rest on our backs. Our taxi has been stolen, but another is en route and we pass time speaking with a modest British legend. The new plan is to regroup in Huaraz and re-check weather.
The forecasts have been entirely unreliable, but the storms are clearing, according to said unreliable weather forecasts. We eat at El Fogon (S/110), an immensely satisfying affair, before telling Zarela our new plan.
Day 6 – July 8th
Another fairly early wake up sees Wilder driving us to Quebrada Llanganuco (S/170 to Cebolla Pampa, S/250 to km 42). The park rangers let us in after an intense perusal of our passports and American Alpine Cards. I have a feeling he’s just staring at the pretty pictures for show. An REI membership card might just do the trick. Professional, qualified mountaineer status can be purchased for the low price of $40, fortunately.
Another fantastic, bumpy dirt road with just under a million switchbacks. Amidst hail and snow, we pick up another crew. Turns out, one of the girls is a familiar face. Graduate student in my major at the same college. Small world. Wilder drops us off, we hide a duffel and begin the 2 hr trek to basecamp at 15,600 ft.
The weather doesn’t look promising, but we hold out for a clear morning.
Day 7 – July 9th
Yanapaccha, complete with a 3AM start, is on the agenda. The difficulty of the route varies, but the general sequence consists of a low angle glacier followed by a bergschrund-y moderate packed snow climb 45-60 degrees. AD- conditions. The wind and snow obscured the route and we did a good job taking the longest, most inefficient, yet possible route available. Big looping “S”s. The best sort of route.
This is also the first time we get to practice swapping roped simul leads. Works well, though time-consuming. We did manage to drop one of our precious pickets and scavenge another.
The summit is a highlight, though a mere high 17er. Works for us. The mountain is ours to enjoy in solitude.
The descent was tediously slow and just a bit cold. Two 30s and sparse stakes made for 5 rappels with belayed down climbing. We managed to find the dropped picket bridging a bergrschrund, allowing us to leave the scavenged one where we found it. A nice temporary addition to lengthen the pitches. It’s the little things.
Back at camp around noon and out we go, just about dead. Abe decides he doesn’t like Clif bars and expels his daily meal. That ain’t good. “Out” becomes a necessity borne on putrid wings.
Once we finally manage to drag ourselves out to the road, we find ourselves on the dark side of the clock. No taxis coming and we’re cold, tired, and miserable up at 15K. Boggy is doing well and cooks up some meals during the few hour wait.
Finally, we’re picked up in a family van and careen our way down the rough switchbacks, grinding metal only a few times. 40 minutes of driving, over 20 km, and we’re a mere 0.2 miles straight-line from our starting point., albeit 3000 ft lower at the popular Cebolla Pampa campgrounds (basecamp for Pisco/Huandoy/Chacraraju). We tip the man (S/50 and Abe’s mysterious disappearing sleeping pad) and promptly fall asleep amidst the ever-present cowpies.
Day 8 – July 10th
Abe’s rough night continues. Must’ve been the water. We’re in no shape to climb and the weather’s still unsettled for our intended backup backup route. The same aspect on Chacraraju has minutes long avalanches streaming down the face. Wouldn’t want to be up there.
On the plus side, it’s my two year anniversary with the lady. American versions aren’t available, but Peruvian knock offs suffice.
The decision is made. We’re mostly worked. Out to Huaraz via Taxi to Yunguy (~S/70) and collectivo to Huaraz (S/5 per seat).
The trip highlights have gradually become dinnertime in Huaraz. We have yet to be disappointed, minus a Sunday night ushering from Bujos. We’re a bit early to town and it’s still siesta time. In the meanwhile, we pick up a saran wrap 1L bag of banana milkshake. Milkshakes in a bag just aren’t natural.
Rather than wait the extra minutes for El Fogon to open, we decide on Mary’s Cevicheria. We should’ve known Mary wouldn’t treat us well. Our general rule to only eat where the locals eat steers us wrong. The signs were obvious:
1) The restaurant had entrée pictures plastered all over the walls. Good restaurants don’t need cheap prints.
2) It took Abe 10 minutes to not order jugo de naranja. I still don’t know what happened there. For some reason, the server insisted on going downstairs between each person’s drink order and query. It took perhaps 20 minutes and 5 waitress trips downstairs until we were all settled with the good, sugar cane brand of Coca Colas.
3) There was a cat in the ceiling. Calico, maybe.
Midway through our meals, the cat would jump out of the ceiling onto a dining table, onto the floor, conduct cat business, hop back up on the dining table, and then jump back into its hole in the wall. 2/3rds the way through, a cat fight ensued when another cat invaded. The Calico won. Amidst flying fur, Abe and I call it quits on our meals. The General soldiers on, scavenging fish chunks from Abe’s abandoned soup and tearing old crab legs apart with gusto.
Day 9 – July 11th
We want a 6000 m peak and we want it bad. Sure, we only have two climbing days left. Not a problem. Well, perhaps a bit of a problem.
Another basin and other peaks would be nice, but Tocllaraju is the most feasible. Mules up to the Ishinca Refugio and a steep grunt up to high camp. Early summit and all the way out to Huaraz. It’s feasible and the weather is gorgeous. Zarela has the taxi and mules waiting.
The taxi is a Toyota Corolla. The work horse of Latin America. Held together by duct tape, chicken wire, and grease of unknown origins. Shocks, 4WD, and power windows are a thing of the past. But the thing makes a Hyundai Tucson look like Barbie’s Glam Convertible. A mechanical beast.
The walk to Ishinca BC has an air of trepidation. The ranger is on edge due to the Argentinians’ demise. We can’t fool him with our AAC cards, but he passes us as we tell him the lowly Ishinca is our destination. Again, he knows it’s a lie. Unofficially.
Our muleteer, Daniel, distracts us with a discussion on native plants and their uses, as well as gives us a few brief thoughts on the Quechua people as a whole. We tip the man and part ways.
The grunt to high camp (just under 17K) takes 3 hrs at a dead man’s pace. A party from Washington/Oregon is on site, as well as a French team. Two girls we met earlier are camped up on the glacier.
Day 10 – July 12th
It’s Boggy’s turn to toss and turn and await a delayed sleep. Altitude’s a tricky beast. Sleeping down in Huaraz (10K) revived Abe but took its toll on Boggy. He’s out and assures us he can get down. It’s 2:30AM.
The day begins in usual fashion. Socks, pants, liners, boots, shirt (brush off the frost), puffies, gaiters, harness, food, crampons, remove harness/grab toilet paper, intermission, harness, rope, coils, prusiks, tools.
We wind our way along a bootpack. This is nice. Snow bridges, crevasses, shining tent, sparkling snow, village lights, foreboding ridges, headlamps forward. All illuminated by unfamiliar stars. Lonely and beautiful. Our minds awaiting the biological vestiges of altitude and an excuse to turn around.
It never comes and the icy crux looms. I grab my toilet paper.
Abe leads it, running out 100 feet of 8mm static marginally protected on 60-75 degree ice. That was unexpected. But the sticks are solid and the lead confident. A fall would have been the death of us both.
There are three parties on route. It feels crowded; yet, the silence is deafening. The bodies of the Argentinians have yet to be recovered. One of the unfortunate souls is a stone’s throw away in dangerous terrain. Curled into a ball. A mental image not soon forgotten. A reminder of the dangers inherent to a selfish sport. A reminder to give a nod of respect, and also of understanding, to those fallen legends we’ve lost.
The route eases after the icy bergschrund shortcut. A few moderate pitches 45-60 degrees with a few spots threatened by cornice or serac. We switch off frequently. One party turns back and we’re now the last. An unfamiliar position, but expected given our team’s rope work training, or lack thereof.
The summit is ours, if only for the briefest of moments. An unparalleled dopamine rush, slightly molested by deafening booms of fallen glacial debris. It’s time to go.
A time-consuming inefficient rappel convinces us to downclimb the ridge difficulties. Considerably faster. We catch the French team at the bergschrund crux and they kindly let us rappel on their lines (40 m minimum). A few minutes later, we’re out from beneath the seracs, finally able to breathe freely, toasted by the reflected sun. There’s hardly a comfortable spot or time to be had on a glacier.
Successful and beat, we meet up with Boggy down at the refugio. Three cold Cokes are enjoyed before we begin the long walk out.
Days 11 and 12 consist of bag-packing, hair-raising bus and taxi rides, and the customary delayed flight home. All in all, a successful and highly irregular trip. Lessons taught and challenges at every bend. But now we know. Supposedly. Next year just might be more of the same…
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