This post, and a few to follow are from an article I wrote for the VOCJ 54. I’ve separated it into more internet-consumable bits. It will likely be posted in three or four parts. The story is about an expedition to the Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru, in July 2011, where Ron Koczaja and I climbed the east face of Rasac Oeste (as well as a few less significant scrambles), and hiked an alpine circuit of the range in four days.
The coldest part of the night – minutes before the sky begins to brighten with the promise of dawn. I shivered under my down parka, my knees pressed into the snow as I leaned back against a two-picket anchor. I had fed out less than a meter of rope in the last ten minutes. I glanced up occasionally, squinting through a constant stream of spindrift. Thirty meters above me I could see Ron’s yellow boots, toes down, heels up. About two meters to the right of the boots, a hand and an ice tool chopping at the snow. He’d been tunnelling horizontally through a sugary snow flute for forty-five minutes. It was four in the morning.
Through the tunnel and up a short vertical step, I arrived at Ron’s belay. Ron stood on a kicked-out ledge under the overhanging face of a serac. Three screws were set into its deep blue, clear ice.
“What the fuck,” I muttered to no one in particular. We were still several pitches below the official base of the route. This was the approach.
“I’m not sure where we can go from here,” said Ron in light of our collective inability to lead overhanging ice. “Perhaps down.”
Unwilling to be turned around after only three pitches of ‘approach’, I told him to keep me on belay and traversed out under the serac toward where its sloping top joined with the spine of unclimbable sugar. I placed an ice screw where the crystal wall was about my height, ploughed my tools through the powder on top into some more consolidated névé, and ungracefully mantled up onto the hanging glacier. After some steep snow climbing, I sat down on the relatively flat glacier and belayed Ron up into the glowing pre-dawn.
This was Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash (pronounced why wash – a good question really), where things seldom go according to plan for climbers. Four days earlier we had bumped and wound five hours in a bus from Huaraz and its familiar views of the Cordillera Blanca. Passing over high-altitude rolling plains, down into dusty gorges clogged with hallucinogenic San Pedro cacti, through the narrow streets of small adobe villages, we arrived in Pocpa – population 100, primary school attendees 40, end of the line.
I crossed an ancient-looking bridge and wandered down the dusty, creek-side path in search of a toilet and a place to fill my water bottles. A squat woman wearing typical Andean garb – several layers of pleated skirt above knit tights, an apron, and a tall hat perched precariously on her head – directed me toward a low outhouse on the step above the creek. I crouched through the low door and could not help but peer into the hole in the floor. A few feet below, the creek ran unhindered. The solution to pollution is dilution, they say. Perhaps not. I’d have to find a place to buy some bottled water.
A boy took me up a narrow, stepped street to the village square. The eves of tile roofs overhung on all sides of the river-cobbled square and a few similarly paved steps let up to the narrow door of the dim, mud-brick church. The coloured plaster attempting to cover the adobe construction had broken off in chunks on all corners. I ducked through another door on the plaza into a dim store and managed to leave with two small bottles of water for twice their normal price.
A man named Raúl and four donkeys met us in the street. We loaded two weeks’ worth of food, camping gear, and all our climbing gear onto the backs of the beasts and we chased Raúl up the valley side. Kelly Paton and Josh Zukewich accompanied Ron and I for the trek into basecamp. With a flight back to Canada in a few days they would unfortunately be unable to join us for any climbs. Having spent the last ten days confined in a river boat along the Ucayali River at about 100 meters above sea level in the thick of the Peruvian Amazon (possibly the most oxygen-rich place on the planet), travel over the day’s 4500m pass was slow, exhausting and surely mentally taxing for them. I was reminded that despite my relative comfort at that altitude from weeks of climbing and hiking in the Cordillera Blanca, even the valley bottoms of the Huayhuash are at high altitude – bodies are slow to heal, hard to keep warm, and lose weight despite seemingly adequate diets. After a month and a half in the Andes I was already startlingly thin. For the next fourteen days, I would not see the underside of 4000m.
Long-spined cacti, brambles, eucalyptus and kenual trees gave way to windblown shale and cushion plants as we neared the pass. And then suddenly the plants were no longer important. Mountains. Los nevados. The ice peaks. You know what they look like, but these ones were different. They’re steeper, more offensive. Sedimentary rock lifted into vertical plates, – limestone flakes like giant dishes in a drying rack – in front. Hills streaked with impossible colours below. And behind, the looming masses of Rasac and Yerupaja, the top of the great Amazon basin at 6617m, and a deadly sharp ridge capped by Yerupaja Chico, Jirishanca and Rondoy. I was intimidated.
We made our basecamp beside a spring in the meadow between two deep blue glacial lakes, Jahuacocha and Soltercocha (cocha means lake in Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire). The large cooking tent we had rented made it feel almost homey. Nearby among the glacial out-wash debris a shepherd family lived in a small stone hut. The walls of their one-room house did not differ much from the sheep enclosures we had passed on our march up the valley and those that now surrounded us. The roof was made of a frame of notoriously twisted kenual branches over-laid by cut grass and old bits of tarp. Carla, who claimed to be two years old but was surely closer to three and a half, shyly watched us. We called her Carlita — little Carla.
Blocks of ice cracked and rumbled down from the Yerupaja icefall during all hours of the day and night. Awakening to the sound of deadly avalanches in the night added to the ominousness of the place and my feeling of intimidation. In the morning I talked Ron into heading a couple kilometers back down the valley to climb a new short rock route up one of the giant limestone flakes we had seen from up on the ridge. I knew I was stalling, nervous at the thought of the ice, the cold, and the commitment in higher places. I suspect Ron knew this too, but he was convinced by thoughts of secret kenual forests between the giant rock flake and the greater wall, and by dreams of finding a condor nest.
Josh and Kelly would walk along the steep morained edge of Soltercocha toward the toe of the Yerupaja glacier for one last chance to play on some Andean ice. In the end they never made it that far. The altitude was taking its toll on them; walking along steep loose glacial out-wash proved too exhausting and their hypoxic minds too uninspired, so they returned to camp. I was surprised they had slept at all the night before.
I, too, was slow and tired on the steep, grassy approach to the gigantic limestone flake. Perhaps I really needed the extra day of acclimatization. Perhaps my thin body was just weary. We scrambled up the steep kenual-clogged notch between the detached flake and the contiguous face and up onto the flake’s narrow crest. Ron took the lead where the scrambling turned to climbing. He wanted to get some trad leading in after following me up all five pitches on our attempt to climb a rock route on Huamashraju in the Blanca. But finding good placements in dirty limestone can be a real challenge and he was soon downclimbing back to me.
“Don’t worry about it man,” I reassured him, “you’ll be making up for it as soon as we hit steep ice.”
Ron Koczaja is from Fairbanks, Alaska, where the waterfalls freeze deep and the rock is horribly crumbly. You can hardly blame him for having done little traditional rock climbing. As a coastal-dweller, I envy his experience climbing frozen waterfalls, a sport which I’ve always found terrifyingly inspiring (or maybe just terrifying). He was the ice technician and I took care of the rock. Together, we would climb mountains.
I wedged a nut in a dirty, flaring crack. Perhaps it would hold a fall, perhaps not. Either way, it gave me the confidence to climb a few more meters. It wasn’t difficult, I would not fall. I was quickly able to place a trustworthy tri-cam and then continued for several meters up easier ground. The climbing was never difficult, surely never harder than 5.8. But good gear placements were few and far between, and the climb was slow and nerve-wracking. I stretched the rope out to its limit, built an anchor and belayed Ron up through some serious rope drag. We retreated from there, rappeling back into the kenuals, our long approach and one pitch of climbing having taken most of the day. Being unused to making even low-quality first ascents, we bothered to name this zero-star route anyway — ‘Super-flake’ 5.8R. Perhaps 5.7 even, but the important part is the R — run-out, restricted, ages 18 and up, not worth the walk.
Back at basecamp we found Kelly trying to escape the affection of Carlita who had somehow managed to dominate her attention for hours with sheer adorableness. Josh wisely hid in their tent. Raúl had taken the donkeys back somewhere, but would soon be back. He would stay in basecamp to guard our belongings while Ron and I were away on climbs. Though the Huayhuash is no longer considered particularly dangerous, it has a violent history. During the 1980s and ‘90s the Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path, a Maoist political movement turned ruthless terrorist group and powerful narco-trafficking organization made these mountains their hideout. Tourists who ventured into the wrong valleys were murdered and surrounding towns ransacked. Anyone who was suspected to disagree with their philosophy was ‘disappeared’ or out-right executed. Though the Peruvian government mostly succeeded in pushing the guerrillas off the map, at least two central committee members still live as a fugitives in remote parts of the Peruvian Andes, openly wearing their PCP – Communist Party of Peru – paraphernalia in the small mountain villages they continue to occupy. The rest are dead or living in horrific prison cells. The Huayhuash Range is no longer home to any organized Senderoistas, but a history of lawlessness is hard to turn around in such little-populated areas and we worried about stories of robbery.
Josh and Kelly decided to leave early the next morning to allow themselves an extra day to get back to Huaraz and on through the chaos of Lima. They were already gone when I crawled out of my tent into the crisp morning. Ron and I filled our bags with a rack of ice screws, a small rock rack, nine snow pickets, four kilograms of tent, all our clothing and climbing gear, and enough food for five days. Raúl thought our packs weighed about thirty-five kilograms. A donkey can carry thirty.