The bubble of light erupting from my headlamp onto the smooth surface of the glacier illuminates a tight, claustrophobic world. I’m left far more alone, in this miniscule universe, than my mind can cope with at these altitudes. But a momentary glance back, as I ascended the gentle lower slopes of Shaqsha’s glacier, revealed another universe entirely: three more orbs of light bouncing up the glacier, occupied by three familiar faces, beneath a bottomless star-spangled sky. Despite the lack of moon, the cold white summits of the Cordillera Blanca could be seen slicing cleanly into the infinite blackness. A warm orange glow rose from the sleeping villages down in the valley. The real world scaled up, and the world in my head scaled down, I could finally remember why I had ventured into the mountains at all. A new depth of field. I was refocused, tiny, and psyched.
After a series of failed and semi-failed attempts on peaks of the Cordillera Blanca, I had a good feeling about this one. Or, at least, my body was feeling strong in the altitude, for once. Artem and I had encountered rotten sugar snow on top of blank slab on Pukaraju (5322m) and had bailed only 20m below the ridge where La Princess et le petit pois (mixed, TD) ends. Then, we found deep, wind affected snow on Artesonraju (6025m) in the Paron Valley, and had turned around for fear of avalanches very low on the mountain. Finally, not learning from our failures on south faces, we went to attempt the south face direct route on Mururaju (5711m), where we drank water infused with naturally occurring iron and lead, and wasted half our climbing time melting snow on the glacier, before finding more deep sugar snow. We effectively made it almost nowhere on the mountain. But Shaqsha promised to be a bit easier, with better snow conditions on the west face. I could feel the strength in our numbers.
With Vancouverite amigos Artem Bylinskii and Nick Gobin, and Arizonan named Josh Miller, we were dropped off below Shaqsha at the end of a rough road at 4100m. Since Nick had only departed his richly-oxygenated sea level home three days prior, and had spent only two nights in Huaraz at 3100m, our primary concern on this first day was his ability to acclimatize. We walked a couple easy hours to a camp on the rolling grassy ridge at 4300m. The following day, we continued along the crest, to expansive views, to a camp between granite slabs a short ways below the glacier at 4800m – both days a quick climb to high altitude by any standard.
A storm rolled in from the east, treating us to moody skies and another spectacular sunset. And then thunder and lightning.
We left camp at 2AM. Unroped on smooth snow until 5200m, the approach to the climb went by quickly in the night. By sunrise, we had wound our way between crevasses and seracs, following old tracks through the start of it, to a point where the broken glacier steepens into the upper west face. With a bit of exploration we found a way across the bergschrund and gained the 50 degree snow that would take us the last 200m up the peak. Two long simul-climbing pitches with all four of us on one rope brought us to an ice ledge just below the summit cornice. The summit of Shaqsha is a tiny, precarious place. We didn’t really want to all try to get up there at the same time, so we took turns getting belayed across a short traverse to the smallest part of the cornice, where we could stand up and pet the summit or stab it with our ice tools. That’s all I did anyway.
Reaching the ice ledge 5m below the summit perfectly on time at 10AM, we proceeded to ruin our timeline with all the belaying and high altitude pooping/gagging (depending on one’s position in that arrangement). During the faff, I managed to build a v-thread in some relatively decent ice. I led the firs rappel, to another point where we had found decent ice. When I realized there was an ice cave I could crawl into, my nesting instincts got the better of me. Too lazy to perforate the ice with more failed attempts at making v-threads, I dug around until I found a few big icicles to sling for the second rappel.
Our third rappel was off a very deeply buried t-slotted snow picket, and our forth off another natural ice bollard. Off the steep part of the face, we moved as quickly as we could through the rest of the warming glacier, reaching camp about 4PM, which is when we’d told the taxi driver we’d meet him back at the road. Josh and I were the least wrecked, so we packed up quickly and left in nearly a jog. We arrived at the road at 6:15, just in time to watch the taxi pull away, about 200m down the road. Josh dropped his pack and ran. I got on my whistle and started making a racket. To my great relief, the taxi stopped and Josh caught up.
By 7PM, Nick and Artem had arrived (only 3 hours late). We gave the taxi driver a massive tip for his patience.
True to Cordillera Blanca tradition, a summit cannot be considered successful without an enchainment with El Tambo discotec in Huaraz. We were too exhausted for the in-a-day enchainment, so it wasn’t until the following night that Artem got his opportunity to embarrass himself in his typical style.