But Still Below the Condors – Part 2: Rasac Oeste east face

by Skyler

Part 1 of this story can be found in this previous post. These are excerpts from an article published in the VOCJ 54 about an expedition to Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash in July 2011, with Ron Koczaja.

It took us two days to reach the camp from where we would attempt to summit Rasac – ‘The Toad’ in Quechua. We staggered under our packs, crutching on our trekking poles, for only a few kilometers and gained only about six-hundred meters the first day. We cleared a rocky tent spot on the end of a steep-sided tarn. In the morning, desperate for lighter packs, we hid our shoes under a boulder and continued upward in our stiff plastic boots. An avalanche floated down a particularly frightening part of Rasac’s upper face. Jagged, blue seracs crumbled off the ice fall and onto lower rock slabs like broken windshields on the curb. Ron and I walked parallel to this aging face along the edge of a sharp-crested moraine. At about five-thousand meters a loose traverse along a cliff blocked our way to the flat glacier where we intended to make high-camp. Instead we built an exposed platform on the spine of the moraine so as to make the traverse with only summit packs. Alarms set for midnight, we ate our typical meal of ramen noodles and/or instant mashed potatoes – anything but carbohydrates is hard to extract energy from at high altitudes – and went to sleep on a bed of foam and coiled rope.

The route we aimed for up Rasac’s west face, as described in ex-VOCer Jeremy Frimer’s guidebook, actually only consists of about four-hundred meters of climbing on a band of clean 60-80 degree ice and snow. Yet, our summit day began a full kilometer below the top. To get to the base of the so-called beginning of the climb, Frimer offered two choices. One option mentioned climbing four pitches of rock slab. The only section of exposed slab we saw was shadowed by giant, teetering seracs and littered with ice fragments. The other option spoke of a snow-covered line just north of Rasac’s west peak. Depending on your understanding of ‘just’, this is a very large area to refer to. What is immediately noticed just north of Rasac Oeste – as the west peak is dubbed – is an expansive icefall coming off a large bench, where the routes are meant to begin, and extending several kilometers. Somewhere in this mass of crumbling glacier, Ron and I spotted a narrow line that should escape pulverization by a hair if the seracs above it were to release. We crossed the flat, lower part of the glacier, winding through debris of avalanches past, and simul-climbed two long pitches up the lower face. At the top of the second pitch, the ice ran out and unclimbable sugary snow stopped my upward progress. This is where Ron took over and began traversing and tunneling laterally through the rotten snow flute in search of more solid climbing.

Dawn seeped off the the peaks and into valleys. One hundred kilometers north, the massive figures of the Cordillera Blanca rose stoically into the soft light. In between lay iron hills – great peaks in the lesser ranges – a rippled mineral etching. All around stretched the great serrated edge of the sierra. The saw.

By now we could see our desired route: a clean, bold, and direct route up pale-blue ice. But we had arrived on the bench much later than we hoped and the navigation across the bench to the base of the route was far from trivial. I led us down into a crevasse, then traversed its depths, stemming between each vertical crevasse wall with void between my legs until I was able to climb up and out. Ron was blocked by another crevasse, fifty meters deep, thirty meters across, and spanning from the bergshrund to the ice fall. He lead us down into this one too and out the side of the ice fall. Hours later, it was clear that our only hopes of reaching the summit of Rasac would involve a thirty-six to forty hour summit push, a feat neither Ron nor I were prepared to do. Deflated and impressed, we sat and ate a casual lunch. We would go down.

But it was before midday and we had managed to get ourselves up onto a rare and lofty place. Following our inclined glacier bench upward was a col between the great, mushroomed west ridge of Rasac and the abrupt tooth of Rasac Oeste – a prism, vertical on two sides with 50-80 degree faces on the opposite sides. We strolled up toward the col, slow and weary as ever, in hopes of catching a glimpse of Sioula Grande, the site of Joe Simpson’s famous epic ‘Touching the Void’. At the col we found mostly clouds and frightful exposure down Rasac’s south face. Glancing up to our right, Ron and I simultaneously turned our attention to Rasac Oeste’s east face and its precarious summit a mere 150 m above us.

“I bet I could climb that,” I thought aloud.

“Yeah?” replied Ron, “Do you want to?”

Ron at the col. Rasac’s mushroomed west ridge is in the background.

Ron led the first pitch up and around some snow mushrooms, making an unprotectable traverse over rock. The snow mushrooms proved insurmountable and the path was slow and convoluted. At the belay, I took over on lead and climbed a dry gully walled on one side by the vertical side of a snow patch, and on the other by more loose limestone. I placed two widely-spaced screws in the side and continued up the rock, slipping my picks in cracks or hooking edges, careful not to send rope-crushing blocks flying down the gully. Eventually I found a crack solid enough to swallow a tri-cam.

As the gully steepened, I peered down between my legs at that tri-cam, now four or five meters below me. I moved my feet out onto a small edge, left my ice tools jammed in a crack, and stepped up, balancing on my crampon front-points. My gloved hands groped for some sort of angular surface above me.

Cachunk!” My front-points slipped, and my hands were useless.

I fell an inch. Miraculously, my crampons caught another micro-edge, and I didn’t pinball down the gully, bouncing and breaking on the blocky limestone. I blinked hard, trying to force my heart out of my mouth, trying to make my head stop throbbing and my ears stop ringing. I kept climbing, eventually hitting snow where I hammered in my sixth and last piece of protection on the 60 m pitch. Ron’s next lead brought us up steep and exposed snow to the summit. I wouldn’t tell Ron about my close miss until days later.

We were above the highest piece of rock on the peak, but a couple meters above us rose a column of snow, an otherworldly pillar, twice as high as it was wide, a great bird perched on its roost. Ron and I marvelled at the forces that could create such a delicate sculpture. We laughingly debated whether we had truly summited, but we both knew that it really didn’t matter; it was late in the day, already 3:30pm, we had enjoyed a spectacular and challenging climb, and we were a long way from our sleeping bags.

The height of Rasac Oeste has been estimated at about 5700 m, though never properly surveyed. The Andes rippled outward in all directions. We looked down at all the streaked and folded earth, all the creases in the glaciers, all the flying clouds. But still, above us rose Rasac’s true summit, and flight-paths of the condors forming a hidden lace.

The west face drops directly down to the glacier at about 5000 m. For some reason, we thought it would be faster and more interesting to rappel this face, thus avoiding the crevasses of the upper glacier bench, and the ice-fall.

“Looks like we might be able to down climb after four rappels,” I told Ron. Ron raised his eyebrows in doubt. Turns out I was wrong.

Ron on rappel one of ten.

After five v-threaded rappels down steep ice and over a few overhangs, and two rappels off less-than-confidence-inspiring pickets, we were indeed able to down climb. We carefully climbed down about fifty meters of steep snow to the top of a cliff. All light faded from the sky. We rappelled off another picket, then another v-thread in the dark. Ron had led most of the rappels to this point, usually untangling his badly-twisted ropes and setting the next v-thread. We were both physically exhuasted, but I could see that Ron was becoming extremely mentally exhausted. The fact that I was able to notice how Ron was coping told me that I was probably more lucid, and should try to do some of  the hard part.

Below the ninth rappel, a large rock band separated us from the glacier and an easy walk to the tent. I feared the cliff was taller than 60 m and I was loath to leave any of my tiny rock rack on the mountain. It had to last me through another six months of South American adventures. I made an awkward traversing rappel, aiming to line up with a small snow patch on a ledge in the rock band for the next rappel. Ron traversed over and stayed high before trying to lower down to my level. Looking directly up the twenty-eight blades on boots pointed at my face, it became even more obvious how tired he was. I snapped at him to move the hell over so that if he fell, he would not pendulum right into me.

But I was tired too. Traversing rappels are always a bad idea, and I had made a big mistake. We pulled the rope, and it fell across the slope and was ensnared. I pulled hard, yet it didn’t budge. We both pulled, yet it wouldn’t move. We were exhausted, and this seemed as low a moment as we’d ever felt. We felt real despair. Giving up, however, is not something easily followed through with, even if your hypoxic, drained mind might point you that way.

I belayed Ron back across the slope to pull some more and cut as much as he could off the rope. From the right angle, he was able to free the entire rope. Now I led directly down the rock band, uncaring that I might have to sacrifice rock gear on the final rappel. I felt a change pass through my belay device part way down. Sixty-one meters later, my feet touched down on snow at the base of the cliff. My whole body relaxed in relief.

Stowing one of the ropes for the meander across the glacier, over the pass and down across the next glacier, Ron discovered a core-shot in the rope. Our stuck rope fortunately came only at a material cost.

At midnight, twenty-four hours after waking up, we stumbled back to our tent. I knew I was extremely dehydrated and needed food, but all I could do was go to sleep. I half-heartedly chugged a bit of cold water before passing out. Ron stayed up a bit and took care of himself with some tea, some ramen noodles and a thin cigarette. We slept until mid-morning then made our way back down the valley toward base camp. The grasses, the lakes, and the feral cows all felt brand new; again I was reborn in the mountains, but this time more startlingly thoroughly than ever before. We’d climbed harder and more technical than either of us had ever before and now we looked at the mountain canvases with a more skilled eye, our palettes having taken on new depth.

Down at our base camp on the edge of Jahuacocha the sheep munched away, the strange southern geese floated amongst reeds, and Raúl’s son caught trout by the dozen. Condors reeled high above the valley, ever the watchmen of the Inca empire.

Carlita quietly asked Ron, “por qué escalas?” Why do you climb?

Caught by surprise, Ron looked seriously at the three year old girl. “No sé. Es loco.

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