As I vomited into the snow for perhaps the fifth or sixth time, I came to the realisation that we would not climb Alpamayo. Instead, we conducted an inglorious retreat from High Camp, but not before I deposited the vast majority of my stomach lining there. It was our first attempt on a Peruvian summit and proved a costly failure in terms of both finances and time. After returning to Base Camp, some 1200m below, the locals regarded our tale of woe with a knowing expression.
“Si. Altura, altura,” they would say unfailingly.
It wasn’t altitude sickness, but you can’t blame them for assuming that it was. Of the hordes of trekkers and climbers that visit the Santa Cruz Valley each year, very few have an acclimatisation period which includes a month spent living above 4000m and several summits over 5500m. On the first day of the expedition, when Morag became sick with a rapid, violent and unexplained bout of vomiting which we’ll call “The Purge”, it was at an altitude some 500m lower than our casual beer run in Bolivia. The illness, whatever it was, hibernated inside me for another five days before reappearing with gusto.
Although we were confident that altitude wasn’t the direct cause, it certainly didn’t improve matters. As I was forcefully reminded on Illimani, recovery at altitude is a tough gig, so when I found myself nauseated, aching and feverish at 5200m, there was nothing for it but to head down.
It was a no-brainer, but that didn’t make it any less frustrating. There it was… Alpamayo, an object of my most ardent desire, was right in front of me. What’s more, we’d done all the hard yakka to get to it – all the gear-shleppin’, water-meltin’, knee-destroyin’ labour that you always have to defend to non-mountaineers. And yet, despite overcoming these trials (with Morag still reeling from the effects of “The Purge”), we would reap none of the rewards. But we could return later in the month, I reasoned, and I still had the motivation to make this happen. But fate, as is often the case, had other ideas.
Less than a week after our attempt, the summit cornice collapsed on the French Direct, killing three climbers and sparing one. He survived the harrowing ordeal of down-climbing several hundred technical metres when his ropes were severed and his partner disappeared. One of those who were lost that day was a prominent and well-respected Peruvian Mountain Guide, for whom Alpamayo must have been a common and rather casual affair.
This tragic event was the prelude to an unstable and deadly season in the Cordillera Blanca. According to locals, the spate of accidents which followed was unusually high for the range, and included significant incidents on Huascaran, Artesonraju, and yet more on Alpamayo.
Undoubtedly, conditions were dicey. The season had started later than normal and was preceded by higher than usual snowfall, meaning that south faces in particular were potentially unstable and often severely threatened by monstrous seracs and mind-bending cornices. Many classic routes were simply untenable, off limits for those with at least a modicum of sanity. Of course, there were plenty of less serious options to be found, but even these were occasionally at the mercy of uncharacteristically sporadic weather.
After one such period, as we waited for the snowpack to settle on the higher peaks, we decided to hit La Esfinge – a 5325m granite monolith with some of South America’s best big wall routes. Again, we failed. This time, Josh was struck down by illness and Morag and I bailed from halfway up when our turn-around time came and went… I’ve written a full trip report for this attempt and (SPOILER ALERT) our eventual success on the 1985 Route, which you can find here.
Success was proving elusive in the Cordillera Blanca. At this stage, we’d spent some three weeks in Peru with little to show for it except for a moderate alpine rock route and a handful of cragging days. Had we been too ambitious? I thought not. Rather, I felt that the objectives we’d picked were right on the cusp of our ability, hovering somewhere around that Goldilocks level where success is possible but far from guaranteed – adventurous, in short.
Either way, we pushed on, soon scraping together a handful of modest summits. We ticked Urus Este (5420m), Ishinca (5530m), Huamashraju (5434m) and Pisco Oeste (5760m) without too much fuss. Although each of these routes was technically easy, they paid dividends in local experience and sublime views. Atop each summit we were rewarded with endless vista of deep valleys, intimidating peaks, tumbling glaciers and pristine lakes in every shade of blue. But the weather remained fickle, shutting down attempts of harder peaks, such as when Tocllaraju became embroiled in a three-day tempest toward the end of our stay in the Ishinca Valley.
Among all this mountaineering malarkey, we were getting to know the humble town of Huaraz rather well indeed. We knew all the best restaurants for après climb gluttony, the best stores to purchase post-victory beverages (as well as post-failure beverages) and the best vendors at various market stalls, street corners and tiendas. We had our bread lady, our vegetable lady and our cheese man dialled in, and let it be known that the best empanadas in Peru are served from a wicker basket near the Plaza de Armas.
Most importantly, we had established a home base at a small hostel named La Cabaña. Here, we were allowed to park our van and wash the expedition filth from our bodies for the low, low price of 15 soles (about $6 AUD) per person per night. We were treated like family here and would definitely recommend it to anyone.
Our friend Gillian arrived, having smuggled an emergency shipment of Vegemite across the border to deliver into our eager hands. Armed with a surfeit of Vitamin B, she and Morag disappeared into the Cordillera Huayhuash for several days, a region known in roughly equal parts for its world-class multiday trekking experience and for the treacherous beauty described in Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void.
Meanwhile, Josh and I intended to use the same period to tackle some more difficult alpine routes. In the end, it turned out to be the most unstable period of the season and yielded little fruit, however we did have success early on with an ascent of the Northwest Face of Ulta (5875m). It’s a rarely climbed peak, but deserves more attention with sustained snow and ice climbing through consistently interesting and complex terrain. The ascent asked a lot more of me than any other route in the Cordillera Blanca, but the reward was two decent milestones – my hardest graded alpine route and a new personal altitude record. I definitely consider the ascent as a small feather in the cap, but the real coup came soon afterward.
August was still young and already the short alpine season was coming to an end. The weather became increasingly erratic, an ugly death rattle that brought with it gusting winds and flurries of snow. A short window revealed itself in the midst of these outbursts, during which Morag and I finally knocked off the 1985 Route in a single push with just a wee hint of a minor epic – easily the hardest, longest, highest day of rock climbing that either of us had ever done.
I always like to finish on a high, and the 1985 Route seemed like a fitting end to what I consider to have been an extremely successful season in the Cordillera Blanca. With the exceptions of Ulta and La Esfinge, I rarely found myself significantly challenged, but sheer difficulty was not the true aim. This year marks Morag’s first season on snow and ice, and for the two of us as a climbing partnership, building a depth of experience without overshooting the reasonable limits of risk was paramount. I think we struck the balance remarkably well, given the challenging conditions at times. I sure wish my first alpine season had have included 7 successful summits, 2 significant attempts, and a metric shitload of alpine rock to boot!
After two months in Peru, we saddled up La Tortuga and left Huaraz behind. It can be difficult to leave somewhere in which you’ve become comfortable, but if you’re comfortable, you’re not learning. It was time to sally forth once, venturing beyond the comfort zone toward the adventures that await.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.