Regarded as South America’s premier big wall, La Esfinge (The Sphinx) is a towering granite monolith in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Undoubtedly the most popular line is the original route, known as the 1985 Route, which blazes a trail directly up the centre of the imposing East Face. It is a prize that is lusted over by essentially every climber to visit the region.
Although technically the easiest route on the wall, with a length of 750m over 18 pitches, a grade of 6b (roughly 20/5.10d for those playing at home) and an R rating for poor protection in the upper half, the 1985 Route is still a fairly serious undertaking. Most often climbed in one long day, it is not uncommon for parties to bivvy halfway at the Plaza de los Flores, whether intentionally or not. We decided to try for a single push, which would negate the need to haul heavy packs, but we acknowledged that covering so much terrain at an altitude of around 5000m was right at the edge of our ability… but it was possible.
Our first attempt began on 5th July 2018 when our team consisting of Morag Stewart, Josh Worley and myself set out for the picturesque Paron Valley. La Tortuga, our trusty steed, was able to manage the winding switchbacks with the benefit of 4WD, and we soon found ourselves above the turquoise waters of Laguna Paron. Without further ado, we strode forth into the first of many difficulties when we began the approach by ascending the wrong valley.
I realise that blaming the map sounds like a weak excuse, but I unequivocally blame the map. Below is an image showing three different routes – the one shown by the map, the one we took, and the one we should have taken. The cartographer had described a path which turned sharply north into a valley directly opposite a large, hook-shaped moraine. We obliged, and were encouraged by what we found along the trail. The vague route descriptions seemed to line up (a faint path climbing over loose, rocky terrain), and we found a camera which an earlier party had lost on the trail, containing a photo of the “La Esfinge” signpost – foolproof evidence, one would assume (incorrectly).
Even the timeline seemed to align. Within the prescribed 2 hours, we had reached a hillcrest which was described as providing “our first unobstructed views of La Esfinge”. This was true, but there was a hitch – a vertical, rocky rampart separated us from our goal. It appeared impassable. Further along the valley, a delicate ribbon of moraine wound its way upward, adorned by several prominent cairns. We followed these along the deceptively long ridge until it became obvious that we’d made some rather significant navigational errors. By this stage, we were in something of a sunk-cost mentality and were determined to find a way to make the route work rather than lose 3+ hours of hard yakka.
Eventually, I found a marked passage through the rock barrier. By this stage, we’d reached an elevation of more than 5000m and our camp lay far below us at 4500m. Cresting the barrier, we could spy tents in the distance. We descended through loose gullies of heinous moraine as night fell. With total darkness upon us, I realised I had forgotten my headlamp. The remainder of the journey was a slow and tedious slog, but we made it eventually, having expended perhaps double or triple the time and effort necessary.
The following day, it became obvious that Josh was coming down with some sort of lurgy. He had a chesty cough and zero energy, so climbing certainly wasn’t on the cards for him. While he tried to sleep it off, Morag set off on a warm up/reconnaissance mission. We’d read that a 6-pitch route climbed the short Northeast ridge, nearby to the descent route, but descriptions and topos proved elusive (to wit: non-existent). After a couple of hours of ascent over yet more moraine and some greasy slabs, we found what we think could have been Waiting for Jurek (V+, 270m).
It should have been called Waiting for Gear, as I discovered while placing a lone bomber piece in at least 40m. Before this, I was facing down a 15m runout above a marginal #2 Camalot, which was a further 5m above two equalised micro-cams, which were a further 5m above a marginal wire. When I finally reached the anchor, I decided that the risk/reward profile wasn’t quite up to snuff. Perhaps if the climbing wasn’t total garbage, I may have been swayed to give the next pitch a crack, as it seemed a little more forgiving. As it was, the polished slabs and dirt-filled cracks didn’t inspire me very much, so I bailed shamelessly.
A day of rest proved to be insufficient for Josh who had not perked up at all in our absence. Recovery from illness at altitude is a pretty tough gig, as I had discovered at Alpamayo high camp. The situation remained unchanged the following morning, so he elected to descend and get a lift back to Huaraz. We took a rest day so that we could be firing on all cylinders for the big attempt.
We awoke at 3am on 8th July 2018, making coffee and quesadillas for breakfast before making the hour-long approach to the wall. We were racked up and climbing by 5am, questing upward on easy terrain by the glow of headlamps (I had borrowed Josh’s). Our first two pitches were completed in the dark, with movement a little slow due to cold feet and gloved hands.
As we embarked on the third pitch, the sun came out and we welcomed the increased warmth and visibility. Our climbing speed improved and our efficiency in transitions was excellent. We were making good time, and I was hopeful l that we’d reach the halfway point before our designated turn-around time of 12pm, but things started to fall apart as we neared the crux.
A faster party was nipping at our heels as Morag seconded the delicate face holds that conclude Pitch 6. They asked if they could pass, and we conceded. But once the leader shot by and established a belay at the top of Pitch 7, the second moved at glacial pace. We lost at least 45mins of precious time here, and I added insult to injury when I had to perform some rope shenanigans to retrieve a #3 to protect some insecure fist jam traverse malarkey.
I almost balked at the crux. It looked pretty damn hard, and I decided that I might as well aid through. I clipped a pocket etrier to the roof before realising that I hadn’t enough gear to place a second one. The first was therefore useless, and a long series of undercling moves above a smooth slab yawned before me. I surprised myself by pulling though these moves with relative ease, and was equally surprised to find myself high above the roof in a shallow stembox, insecure and runout. I slowed my breathing and achieved some moderate zen, finding an impeccable footjam from which to place gear. With that achieved, I proceeded up the difficult but well-protected fingercrack/stemming sequence – an amazing pitch.
We were now well and truly behind the 8-Ball, with 2 pitches to complete and less than an hour to spare if we were to make our turn-around time. Any possibility of this was utterly destroyed when a rope became wedged in a narrow flake on Pitch 8. Shortly after this minor embuggerance was resolved, I launched into Pitch 9, which proved harder than it looked and began to consume yet more time. At this stage, we’d lost some 2 hours and it became clear that we’d not achieved our aim. I bailed from Pitch 9 sometime between 12:30 and 1pm and we began the lengthy descent. Surprisingly, this proved remarkably easy and we managed to reach the ground in about 5 rappels and less than 2 hours later.
The decision to descend was frustrating, given that we’d completed half the climb and most of the hard pitches, but I know it was the right decision and I’m not one to second-guess myself. The upper pitches of the 1985 Route are infamous for difficult route finding and poor protection, hardly ideal after nightfall. Making the call to retreat seemed like an act of prudence to me, because the alternative might have been a minor (or major) epic under the cover of darkness on a remote Peruvian peak, and I’m not Joe Simpson.
Unlike the protracted, five-day affair of our first attempt, we tried to launch a blitzkrieg assault during a short weather window in the early days of August. With Morag trekking the famous Huayhuash Circuit, Josh and I packed a small amount of food and gear and headed back up the hill.
This time, we had the benefit of prior knowledge regarding the approach. The right trail saw us at the bivvy cave in a mere 2.5 hours, which was about a third faster than our original approach time, despite the fact that the cave is another hour further along.
But our good fortune ended here. At the bivvy cave, I developed something we’ll call “gastro-intestinal distress” instead of more gratuitous descriptions. We left before even touching the rock.
With the season coming to a close, there was time for one last objective. Rather than take on a new alpine route, I was determined to give The Sphinx one last crack. I knew that with the beta we had, we could get it done.
On 10th August, Morag and I headed back to the bivvy cave, once again taking light provisions. We arrived without incident and watched as several parties on the wall alternately ascended or descended. With the alarm set, we got a good night’s rest, turning in even before the sun did.
We cruised the first half of the route, climbing relatively quickly and conducting efficient transitions. Now that we were clued into where the difficult moves and technical segments were, we wasted far less time or energy on them. We also got a mulligan on the first pitch, free climbing but using a fixed rope left by another party for protection. Soon, we’d arrived at the Plaza de los Flores. The time was just after 11am, some 2.5 hours faster than our previous effort. After a brief chin-wag to assess fatigue, we decided to go on.
The 10th pitch is a fantastic dihedral with a fiery, sustained layback crack nestled inside, but afterward the climbing becomes pretty average. Almost immediately, we found ourselves off-route. This is not a major drama, however, and if you follow your nose along the path of least resistance, you’ll eventually come good. The protection was indeed sparse in places, but usually not desperate. I recall a couple of hair-raising moments, but generally speaking, the harder moves are relatively well-protected.
Toward the end of the climb, we began to feel pretty worn-down. Despite the easy grades in the upper half, 18 pitches is still 18 pitches and the climb had started to become Type 2 Fun. Night overtook us on the final pitch, but we donned headlamps and carried on amid a stiffening breeze. Feeling exhausted but under pressure to move quickly, my placements turned to garbage and we lost two wires within 10 metres from the summit (salvage rights apply). With relief, we topped out after a mammoth day on the rock, starting and finishing the climb under the cover of darkness.
Having previously reconnoitred the descent route, I was confident that we’d be able to find the rappel with ease. A short walk down the Northeast Ridge found us at the anchors, where we made three rappels to the slabs and descended loose moraine to the bivvy cave. We slept well.
The 1985 Route is easily the longest, hardest, highest rock climb both Morag and I have ever done. I’m stoked to be able to end a fantastic season in the Cordillera Blanca on such a high note, and to have learned such a huge amount about the art of climbing from a single route.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.
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