Squamish!

I left Huaraz, Peru on August 18. Our seven-week trip there was successful and included tons of rock climbing, mountaineering, and technical alpine climbing, but more importantly it seems that Vitaliy and I don’t hate each other yet. My evidence for this is that we have a couple of Yosemite trips planned already for the fall, though I will note that he bailed on the soonest one because of “work.”

Two amigos... for now.

Two amigos (for now at least).

There were no first ascents on our trip, as I’d hoped there would be, but there were so many amazing climbed routes in the area that I felt it made sense to stick to them. Doing a first ascent in the Cordillera Blanca would be awesome, but it would be like going to Yosemite for the first time as a 5.11 climber to put up new routes instead of repeating the historic and incredible classics. To me it was more important to climb three established routes in the same time it would take to approach, scope, attempt, and maybe re-attempt an unclimbed one. Climbers romanticize first ascents, but at this point in my climbing career I have more to learn than I have to give.

I learned a lot on this trip to Peru. I learned that my excitement and motivation for climbing changes; that climbing partnerships require the same due diligence as life’s other important relationships; that my endurance and stamina–for hiking and climbing, at least–last as long as my wakefulness; and that when circumstances conspire I am strong. I learned that it’s possible to climb 6000m peaks even when you have to dry-heave or drop your harness to poop every hour. There’s a less literal truth to that lesson as well, but the literal lesson was the important one given the frequency of my gastrointestinal issues. I learned how to be strong when my partner wasn’t (which was rare!), and when to swallow my pride when our roles were reversed. I learned that my friends and family at home would worry when I wouldn’t email them quickly after climbs. I learned dirty words in Russian.

Speaking of Russian, I met an awesome Russian in Tuolumne earlier this summer and she offered to pick me up from the airport in Seattle and take me to Squamish after Peru. It was hard to say no to that! She writes about the random circumstances of our meeting in a blog entry which for some reason she calls “Hazing.” I planned to arrive in LA on August 19, eat with Dennis and my parents, then fly to Seattle the next day. I enjoyed a run too–it was super inconvenient to find a place to run in Huaraz, so I’ve been on a couple-month hiatus. My 22,000 ft acclimatization made it surprisingly painless to crank out 6 miles at a 6:30 min/mile pace, which isn’t bad for an out-of-running-shape non-runner, I think.

An otherwise boring bunch of flights from Lima to LA to Seattle were interrupted by some cool mountains. Above Mexico City I spotted the famous Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, the former spewing smoke as usual. There is a cute native star-crossed lovers story which explains the origin of these mountains. Though I looked for San Jacinto and San Gorgonio on the flight north, the LA basin was covered in clouds and they weren’t visible. I was treated to a fantastic view of Yosemite the next day, though, and of Mt. Saint Helens and Rainier farther north.

Popo and Izta.

Popo and Izta with Mexico City below.

El Capitan from the sky!

El Capitan from the sky!

And Half Dome!

And Half Dome!

And Rainier... :-)

And Rainier… :-)

Natalie picked me up at Seatac that afternoon and I spent the night at her parents’ place. Although I’d packed earlier than usual the previous night and actually had time to spare in the morning, I woke up early to set up my new portaledge so it could stretch while I was at Squamish. The damn thing is so taut that it took two people with a rubber mallet forty-five minutes to assemble it on terra firma. Apparently they make them tight to keep the bed usable through a long life. That’s a great engineering decision if you ignore the necessity of packing a rubber mallet on your ledge’s maiden voyage. Anyway, the point of that was that I was tired and slept through breakfast. I felt bad about that because I couldn’t even say thanks to Natalie’s parents!

OK, fast-forward to the Canadian border. Natalie’s (mom’s) car seemed to have registration for every year since 2005 except the one that mattered. Some scrambling later we managed to convince border control that we weren’t smuggling cocaine (or coca leaves) into the country and they let us through. We cragged that afternoon at Smoke Bluffs then met LeRoy at his incredible townhouse on the water in downtown Squamish. LeRoy let us stay with him for a few days until he had to return to LA, and it was an awesome few days.

Third pitch of Grand Wall (10b A0)

Third pitch of Grand Wall (10b A0)

Fourth pitch of Grand Wall--the Split Pillar. 5.10b

Fourth pitch of Grand Wall–the Split Pillar. 5.10b

Let’s start with the first full day in Squamish. Well, “full” is a bit of a misnomer–though I woke up at the relatively alpine time of 6 am I spent the next couple of hours cooking omelettes and pancakes. I’d kind of hoped that LeRoy would join us, but he noted that my breakfast looked “heavy” and that he preferred juice and tea instead. I guess my usual strategy of thanking people with food wasn’t going to work. Natalie and I ended up with a lot of food to eat that morning, which wasn’t optimal given that we were about to hop on a long 5.11a classic on The Chief. We wasted a little more time when I insisted that I get coffee before our climb; I’m not above pooping on classic routes, as Vitaliy well knows, but as this was my first multipitch with a new partner, and as I expected a few more parties on this route than on various 6000m peaks in the Andes, I wanted to smoke the critter out.

The route we did was Grand Wall, which can be freed at 5.13 but is usually done at 5.11a A0. Natalie had never aided before, but since my first time aiding was to a 3000m needle in the Alps coached by my mostly French-speaking belayer, I figured that the vastly more talented Natalie would have no problem rope-gunning me up the bolt ladders. She led the first four pitches, which go at 5.8R, 5.8R, 5.10b A0, and 5.10b. Her last pitch was the famous splitter “Split Pillar.” I led the following four, which are 5.11a A0, 5.11a, 5.10a, 5.10c. The first pitch is the awesome “Sword” pitch, and the second is the heinously strenuous albeit bolt-protected “Perry’s Layback.” The climb was fantastic, and the descent along the aptly-named “Bellygood Ledge” was reminiscent of the awesome Thank God Ledge on Half Dome.

Wee, The Sword! 5.11a A0

Wee, The Sword! 5.11a A0. Photo by Natalie.

Looking down Grand Wall after the bolt ladder.

Looking down Grand Wall after the bolt ladder.

The next day my forearms were fried from all the laybacking on Grand Wall, so we declared it blackberry day. I picked up some butter from Save-On, cut it into cubes, and stuck it in the freezer to get it ready for pie crust. We commandeered a couple of bowls from LeRoy’s kitchen and walked outside to fill them with fresh blackberries; we didn’t have to walk far to find bushes full of them. Anyway, long story short I made a pie from scratch. It wasn’t too shabby! As the dough cooled in the fridge we walked to the nearby Smoke Bluffs and climbed a 10d called Crime and Punishment. To a suburbanite native Angeleno it is wildfires and not blackberries which define summer, so this bluebird, berry-filled, freshly-baked pie day was as close to fairy tale perfect as I imagine summer can get. What an awesome day.

10 lbs of blackberries.

10 lbs of blackberries.

Making the crust...

Making the crust…

Putting in the blackberries...

Putting in the blackberries…

Pie!

Pie!

Weee, pie!

Weee, pie!

Hari, who I met in Chamonix four years ago and who’s climbed many a huge mountain since we hiked Mont Blanc back then, joined us the next day. I wanted to check out some routes on The Apron, which is a broad, tall slab under The Chief, so I climbed “Calculus Crack” (6p, 5.8) solo then joined them later at Smoke Bluffs. I was just in time to watch Natalie–who has been climbing for 1.5 years and trad climbing for less than one–almost onsight the famous finger crack Crime of the Century (5.11c). I climbed an adjacent route then called it a day. The next day I climbed a bit more with those two and soloed Diedre (5p, 5.8) and St. Vitus’s Crack (5p, 5.9). I also met a couple of Natalie’s friends, who were super cool. Eugene and I climbed a 5.9 above Memorial Ledge, which was noticeably harder than any of the 5.9 pitches on St. Vitus’s Crack.

The next morning Hari and Natalie left for the Bugs. Alpine psyche is a conserved quantity, so I stayed in Squamish for the sunny cragging, solo aid practice, and running. In hindsight I should have looked at the forecast before making the decision to stay; as soon as they left I found out that it would rain for the next week. Desperate to climb more before the rain set in early the next morning, I read my Silent Partner manual, racked up, and left my hostel at 10 pm for the 2.5 mile walk to The Chief. I rope-solo-led the first pitch of Exasperator (5.10a), which was probably not the best climb on which to discover that my Silent Partner doesn’t play nice with my rope. Hopefully I’ll figure out a way to use it effectively; a wonderfully generous SuperTopo member, Derek, sent it to me for free. He wouldn’t even let me pay for shipping! Anyway, I returned to the hostel at 4 am and slept in until 11, when I looked outside to find sunny skies. Tony and I went climbing at Nightmare Rock that afternoon.

Speaking of hostels, I’m staying at a sweet place called Oasis. It’s a little austere–the living room is actually a meditation room and the beds are as hard as plywood–but I love the owners and Yulin makes a great breakfast and an unbelievable supper. Last night we had homemade sushi and noodles. Given that no one reads this blog I’m not getting a discount for the review–go stay at their place!

Anyway, for the last couple of days I’ve been out cragging with Tony, Chalu, et al. I finally met the infamous Alix Morris, who ran up The Nose with Vittles back in March, and the crappy weather’s about to give way to a fine weekend, after which it looks like it might crap out again. Maybe I’ll go to Leavenworth on Sunday, where it’s usually dry. Anyway, yay! Coffee, random friend encounters, annoying stuff falling from the sky, brutally offwidth-scarred calves… Squamish!

Huascaran Sur (22,205 ft)

With five days left in Huaraz but two of those reserved for cake and nineties climbing mags at my favorite cafes, it was clear what our last climb would be. Since most groups take seven days to climb the regular route on Huascaran Sur, it would fit perfectly into our three-day timeframe. Compared to our burro-less weeklong camping shiverfests, our itinerary was remarkably civilized this time:

  • Day one: late breakfast at hostel, ice cream downtown, then a 5500 ft approach to the hut.
  • Day two: bona-fide alpine start, 7000 ft up to the 22,205 ft summit, then 7000 ft down to the hut.
  • Day three: 5500 ft descent and lunch in Huaraz.

Possessing not the slightest sense of urgency, I chatted with another gringo over breakfast until past nine when a frantic Vitaliy entered the room and said, “not to be a douche, but aren’t we climbing a mountain today?” Given that the approach was less than a Whitney hike in height the urgency seemed a bit misplaced, but as in any good relationship concessions are necessary and I went downstairs to pack. Cue, “you’re not packed yet?!”

Ice cream downtown before approaching Huascaran.

Ice cream downtown before approaching Huascaran.

An hour later we finally left the hostel and got some last-minute supplies: ice cream and chocolate. Finally on the collectivo at 10:30, we headed north towards Caraz and got off at the tiny town of Mancos. The trailhead is half an hour up a dirt road in a town called Musho, and we briefly confused the words for 2.50 with 250 as the price to get there. On this point: the prices stated in Brad Johnson’s guidebook for taxis to and fro trailheads are outrageously overstated. Not only is it possible to take public transportation in lieu of taxis at an order of magnitude fewer soles to most trailheads, but the prices given for taxis are anywhere from 1.5 to 2 times too high. Has Peru experienced catastrophic deflation or is Johnson just the biggest gringo ever? I like to keep the tone of these trip reports positive, but given that I’m about to sell my reasonably new $350 tent for $150 due to a typo in a flyer, I’m hopeful this bit of schadenfreude will make be feel better.

At the trailhead. Note the cemetery.

At the trailhead. Note the cemetery.

My best Michelle Peot impersonation.

My best fossana impersonation.

Vitaliy hikes up to the refugio with Musho behind.

Vitaliy hikes up to the refugio with Musho behind.

At Musho we were mildly appalled to find that the trailhead is in a cemetery. We left the trailhead at 11:40, trekked through eucalyptus groves and farms on a nondescript footpath, finally found a real trail an hour later, and walked into the refugio at 3:10. Three and a half hours for 5500 ft–not shabby! At that pace we would be back at the refugio from the summit the next day before lunch.

Near the refugio is a Huascaran National Park kiosk where a guard checked our park passes and gave us the “if you die your parents will not be able to sue us” waiver. We signed away and entered the hut.

Immediately on your right as you enter there is a boot room modeled after those of the European huts; you’re supposed to leave your mountain boots there and put on slippers. Farther down the hall from the boot room are the first of the dorms. Left of the boot room is the dining room, which is tiled and has several cafeteria style wooden tables. There are board games to pass the time and a little Franklin stove to keep the place cozy.

'Coatroom' at Refuge Cosmiques, Chamonix.

‘Coatroom’ at Refuge Cosmiques, Chamonix.

The refugio!

The refugio!

Dormitories.

Dormitories.

The dining room.

The dining room.

Across from the boot room are stairs to the upper floor where there are more dorms. We stayed at one of these, which was appropriately called “Chacraraju”; across from us two Austrians slept in their own room. This refugio sleeps sixty, but we four were its only patrons on our first night. On our second night Vitaliy and I were the only ones. It’s awful that this magnificent hut, which has hardwood floors, running water, showers, and three-course meals, is ignored by the majority of climbers. When we asked some of them why they didn’t stay at the refugio, they replied, “we like to camp.” That’s fine, but I would find it hard to have pride in camping if porters carried my tent!

That afternoon I ate nearly a pound of granola, which I supplemented with soup, rice, chicken, and potatoes at dinner downstairs. I felt as nauseous as I imagine I would feel if cake were determined not to be a risk factor for heart disease. I went to bed early that night but didn’t sleep due to a combination of the time and the feeling that I was harboring a chest burster in my stomach.

My alarm went off at 11:30, but as I hadn’t slept at all I declared that I was resetting it to 12:30 am. Miraculously, I slept for an hour and had no excuse to continue to sleep when the alarm went off again. An hour later I slipped off my down parka–the classic sign of an imminent winter hike–and we opened the hut door into the midnight mountainscape.

Up we went through polished slabs reminiscent of Tuolumne domes and arrived at the snout of the glacier in an hour. We found a ramp through what was otherwise a vertical ice wall and walked for a hundred feet until we found a place to stash Vitaliy’s running shoes and for me to put on crampons. From here it was a long but uncomplicated march to the firn line, where we found a couple of tents at camp one. From there we went up firm snow until a serac barrier three thousand feet above the hut made us realize we were off-route. When we looked left we saw headlamps dancing around camp two a few hundred yards away.

A V-thread rappel and some down-climbing later we regained the normal route and walked up to camp two as dawn broke. Twelve Italians and a Peruvian guide were milling around camp drinking coffee as I walked into camp. “Buenos dias!” No response. Maybe they don’t speak Spanish? “Good morning!” No response. Very weird. My only other experience with a group either that groggy or that rude was on Stok Kangri many years ago when a large group of French-speaking Swiss ignored my question about directions, which I asked in French and English.

Ten minutes past camp two. Old camp two is next to the large crevasse.

Ten minutes past camp two. Old camp two is next to the large crevasse.

Morning light on Huascaran Norte. Photo by Vitaliy.

Morning light on Huascaran Norte. Photo by Vitaliy.

The Chacrarajus from Huascaran. We climbed the right peak a month ago.

The Chacrarajus from Huascaran. We climbed the right peak a month ago. Photo by Vitaliy.

As we quickly discovered, our strategy of foregoing The Shield, which is a slightly more technical and obscure route on Huascaran, so that we could use a broken trail was all for naught. The Italians got in line behind us as we broke trail for 3000 vertical ft to the summit. Around camp two the brutal wind that had blown all night abated, but as we’d ascended to nearly 20,000 ft and were still in the shade, I became very cold. I put on a down parka over three layers but continued to shiver. It crossed my mind that it was silly to continue while shivering, but I reasoned that trail-breaking and the approaching sunshine would warm me. To my detached amusement the shivering continued unabated to the summit.

Vitaliy and I swapped positions in front every few hundred yards. At around 21,500 ft Huascaran has a great plateau, and its convexities convince you that the summit is just over the horizon. Like Misery Hill’s perverse older brothers, these convexities trick you over and over into thinking you’re nearly at the summit. Countless front line swaps later, I was reduced to one step per two or three breaths.

Step. Sink in twelve inches. Shift weight forward. Sink a few more inches. Breath. Breath again. Repeat.

I finally trudged past some prayer flags at 12:40 pm. The summit plateau was so broad and it was so cloudy that the summit views were awful, but we were done! It was the literal and figurative high point of our trip to Peru–we were on top. It was all down from there: down to the hut, down to Huaraz, down to the smoggy mess of late summer Los Angeles, down to responsibility and work.

Yours truly on the summit. Photo by Vitaliy.

Yours truly on the summit. Photo by Vitaliy.

Vitaliy on the summit.

Vitaliy on the summit.

Though mountaineers often admonish that “the summit is only halfway there,” ninety-nine percent of the time the summit is temporally at least three-quarters of the way there. Though the snout of the glacier stretched on twice as far as we remembered, we arrived at the shoe stash 6000 ft below three hours from the summit. Flogged and beaten by the hardest slog we’d ever done, we just sat on our backpacks and flapped our mouths in the sunshine until the toilet at the hut beckoned and we finally stepped off the glacier. As I walked down the polished slabs somewhere very near the fine line of {\mu}_s F_N, I remembered walking off of Lembert Dome at sunset after one of my first trad climbs with Kedron, then much later with Vicky, Lukasz, and Nicole.

That night I didn’t wait for the hut dinner; I ate the rest of my granola, ate the rest of my oatmeal, and passed out just after sunset. I awoke at 4 am when an indignant Vitaliy cursed himself for having forgotten his pee bottle and left his bunk to use the restroom like the rest of us. I fell asleep again and didn’t wake up until eight, fourteen hours after turning in.

And now back in Huaraz with a little more than a day left, I find myself asking: when will I come back? Will the cathedral finally be finished next time? How many more women will be wearing tights instead of the beautiful Peruvian skirts and embroidered hats? Will Google streetview have conquered all of Ancash? How many more polished slabs will climate change uncover? Will I see a chinchilla again? Will I come with such an awesome partner? Will I have a wife who will be pissed off that I’m here? Will she be with me?

Idle reverie is guiltless now. One more day of that, then a quick flight to LA, a quick lunch with Dennis, and a quick dinner with mom and dad before SQUAMISH!

Downs and a big up, or rather out

Lately I’ve been enjoying more success in finding chocolate cake in Huaraz than in climbing in the mountains. After the interminable and dusty march into Cayesh Base Camp, a chronic but infrequent joint problem in my right big toe ended our attempt on the German Route before we even stepped foot on snow. I walked thirty miles with nothing to show for it except some pictures of weird streams. As glaciers retreat in Quebrada Cayesh minerals which haven’t seen light of day in ages leech into ground water and make gross but potable water. Some waterfalls in the area had white mineral deposits around them which looked like ice from far away.

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Cayesh… not this time. Photo by Vitaliy.

IMG_1835

Pretty but gross underfoot.

After the sixteen mile stroll back to Huaraz we took our third trip to Hatun Machay. Thankfully this time I didn’t spend the entire trip on a course of Cipro. When we arrived and as I was getting ready to make pizza dough so I could set it aside to rise as we climbed, some guy came over and asked us if we wanted to participate in a climbing competition. Us? Climbing comp? I said no. But he insisted and said there would be free food and prizes. Furthermore, he said, the climbing competition is graded in part by number of routes completed. Aha! That caters to our strengths, I thought. We signed up.

Yeah, we did a climbing comp.

Yeah, we did a climbing comp. Photo by North Face Peru.

In four hours we each led twelve routes between 5.10a and 5.11a, which was enough to nab us second place in the amateur division—the pro people climbed only 12a and harder. We got shirts, blankets, and pizza—not bad! For the next couple of days we flailed on top rope on hard routes and utterly trashed our skin. I left feeling schooled but strong. More importantly I made some banana bread, pizza, and pancakes from scratch, and we spent some time with our favorite British climbing duo behind the wide boys: Tom and Ed. Their predilection for “porridge,” whatever that is, rivals mine for chocolate cake.

Typical Hatun Machay breakfast fare: fresh banana bread, pancakes from scratch, cortado, eggs.

Typical Hatun Machay breakfast: fresh banana bread, pancakes from scratch, cortado, eggs.

Excited for some homemade pizza! Though the toppings weren't artful they were delicious.

Excited for some homemade pizza! Though the toppings weren’t artful they were delicious.

Back in town we rested for a day then headed up to Chopicalqui, which is one of the highest peaks in Peru. I was in a foul mood that morning, which I will blame on gastrointestinal issues, and when we finally arrived at glacier camp 4,000 ft above the trailhead I had the burp of death. That is, I had a burp whose noxious smell foreshadowed vomiting. I melted water and took care of camp shores before bracing for the sleepless night that I knew was coming.

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En route to Chopi high camp. Photo by Vitaliy.

The summit that I missed. Photo by Vitaliy.

The summit that I missed. Photo by Vitaliy.

I’ll spare details, but I didn’t sleep until well after Vitaliy left camp at 4 am for his solo walk to the summit. Thankfully the whole episode was more of a food poisoning thing than a legitimate infection, so I felt better by the time he returned to camp and we packed up to return to Huaraz that afternoon. Frustrated now from two botched summits, I looked forward to a good time on Karma de los Condores, a newly developed nine-pitch granite crack climb dubbed “Astroman of the Andes.” High praise!

After another idle day in Huaraz we took a late taxi to Quebrada Ishinca and did the two-hour walk into camp under a drizzle. We discovered that my tent is not indeed waterproof, and we wondered if the climb would be dry at all the next day. The rain let up in early evening and glimpses of stars that night kept us somewhat optimistic.

Hatun Ulloc. The route goes straight through the roofs in the middle!

Hatun Ulloc. The route goes straight through the roofs in the middle!

Camp was in a magical quenual forest.

Camp was in a magical quenual forest.

Bushwacking to the base.

Bushwacking to the base.

The next morning we did a relatively easy bushwack to the base, where I promptly got off-route and did a 5.10R mantle with fingers dug into loose moss and a penalty of not only sprained ankles but cow shit. I traversed right on a vegetated ramp and intersected the real route, which was much less lame. After some excellent, clean granite crack climbing I stopped mid-pitch to belay because of rope drag from the cow shit start.

The next half-pitch was more 5.10 but ended soon at a bolted station. V took the next 5.11 pitch, which he also ended at the halfway point because of routefinding issues. I took the next half-pitch and found it fairly stout for 5.11, but I guess that’s not surprising as I’ve only onsighted a handful of 11a and 11b routes. It was fingers in a corner—ostensibly my strength! The climbing was fantastic.

For mi madre. Photo by Vitaliy.

For mi madre. Photo by Vitaliy.

Stemming into a 5.10 hand crack.

Stemming into a 5.10 hand crack.

The first pitch above the giant ledge.

The first pitch above the giant ledge. Photo by Vitaliy.

The roofs loom above...

The roofs loom above…

The next pitch was a forgettable, grungy chimney which ended at the prominent vegetated ledge a third of the way up Hatun Ulloc. I took the next pitch, which was 5.10 through steep flakes and a bulge. V onsighted the 5.11 pitch after that, which was described as having slopers but actually just felt like steep crack climbing. I followed cleanly, looking up occasionally at the looming roofs that were on my lead.

Leading into the roofs. Photo by Vitaliy.

Yours truly leading into the roofs. Photo by V.

Though I was intimidated and skeptical that I could finish the 5.11+ above without aiding, I forced myself to start and was soon so far out in space on the overhung wall that it would have been more trouble than it was worth to bail on the pitch. I cruised up to the first overhang on tricky 5.10+ terrain, placed some protection under the first roof, then heel hooked my way over this first obstacle with ample doses of terror. After fighting for over a minute to get my center of mass over my foot, I finally stood up in balance and placed a piece at the beginning of the 11+ finger crack above. I rested on that piece and started up the corner.

Cranking into the 11+ fingers corner!

Cranking into the 11+ fingers corner! Photo by V.

A mercifully easy layback.

A mercifully easy layback. Photo by V.

With nearly a thousand feet of air under my legs, I stemmed up this awesome corner with fingers jammed into the smooth crack in the back, and I slowly worked my way up to the offwidth roof crack above. I placed a four and then a five from a hand jam on the main wall and realized that the lip of the offwidth was positive enough to layback. I laybacked out the roof, placing my feet on high but positive holds on the opposite wall, then did another unreal heel hook center of mass shift sequence which involved pushing against some rock with my skull. Finally over my feet and over the roof, I still had to place protection from a strenuous stance without blowing it and losing all of my progress to a wild swing back under the roof. A few minutes later I was atop the 11+ pitch, my ass torched and still cold despite the enormously strenuous moves I’d just pulled. The wind was blowing hard above the corner, and by the time Vitaliy finished following we were both shivering badly despite wearing three layers. We decided to rappel down having finished the crux of the climb (there were three pitches left).

Rappelling after the super-overhung crux pitch.

Rappelling after the super-overhung crux pitch. Photo by V.

Hauling myself back into the station below.

Hauling myself back into the station below. Photo by V.

Since that pitch overhangs so much we had to leave a rope fixed to the previous station so we could haul ourselves back into the wall. What an awesome rappel! It was just like rappelling Leaning Tower but disappointingly no less terrifying; I guess I haven’t gotten used to hanging in space like that. The rest of rappels passed uneventfully and we were at camp by dark.

Sweet sunsets as usual thanks to mines in the Cordillera Negra.

Sweet sunsets as usual thanks to mines in the Cordillera Negra.

Now we have only six days left in Huaraz, so we’re gearing up for one last climb before going home. I went to Andino’s for some cake this afternoon only to be harangued by a waitress for five minutes in Spanish. After consulting Google Translate I realized I’d forgotten to pay last time. Whoops.

Original Route, La Esfinge (V 5.10+)

On Chacraraju I reminded myself at cold belays that I’d be on the warm granite of La Esfinge in a few days.

La Esfinge at sunrise. Photo by Vitaliy.

La Esfinge at sunrise. Aid and free routes from 2000 ft to 3000 ft tall. Photo by Vitaliy.

It was warm in the sun. When the sun set behind a ridge it was definitely not the El Cap I dreamed about during the interminable nighttime raps last week, though. That said it’s pretty wild…

Vitaliy on the 10+ wide pitch a couple hundred meters up.

Vitaliy on the 5.10+ wide pitch a couple hundred meters up.

After a post-Chacraraju sprayathon and torta de chocolate feast we stashed our ice tools, crampons, and enormous belay jackets at our hostel and I loaned out my still-damp gloves to another gringo. Instead we packed a dozen cams, one 70m rope, and standard Sierra Nevada camping gear for one of South America’s greatest big walls. Its south face is always shaded, 3000 ft tall, and has mostly aid routes, but its east face is sunny and has free routes 2000 ft tall from 5.10d and up.

We took a collectivo to Caraz like normal–two hours north, two dollars each–but couldn’t find a cheap way to get to the Laguna Paron trailhead. Unlike the Q. Santa Cruz trailhead there isn’t a village at Laguna Paron, which means you can’t use cheap collectivos to get there. Instead we took a thirty-five dollar taxi one-way, which isn’t bad for a 1.5 hr ride but nevertheless hard to stomach after paying so little for everything else.

After arriving at Laguna Paron in mid afternoon we took the wrong approach gully and looked like this at the end of it:

Where the hell is La Esfinge?

I heard there was a trail.

Eventually we figured out that La Esfinge was over a sharp ridge. Fortunately only a vegetated 5.7 ramp soloed in running shoes and overnight packs and a little snowstorm were all that remained between us and camp.

Finally over the ridge separating the Stupid Gringo Gully and the real approach gully.

As we climbed to the ridge crest some of the regular afternoon snow started to fall.

Camp, however, was fantastic. Someone had even picked grass and laid it in a rectangle to keep moisture from soaking up through the tent floor.

Camp. Way better than the claustrophobic cave bivy near the wall.

Camp. Way better than the claustrophobic cave bivy near the wall.

The next morning we approached La Esfinge quickly despite Brad Johnson’s warning that it was an hour of “blood, sweat, and tears” from base camp. Hiking over the many shallow lateral moraines must be significantly harder with a haul bag on your back. Speaking of hauling–big walling any of the east face routes would be horrible. The face is low-angle like the bottom of The Nose and more featured, which would make hauling a nightmare. Much of the Original Route is runout face climbing and would be scary to aid anyway, so you might as well free climb it. You can french-free or aid the short 10+ cruxes easily.

Following pitch two.

Following pitch two with our little daypack. Photo by Vitaliy.

I ran into a couple at the bivy cave five minutes from the rock. They were planning a wall-style ascent and had fixed three pitches the day before. At the base we ran into three Peruvians who were also planning a wall-style ascent with a bivy that night at the terrace above pitch nine. One was jugging their first fixed line when we arrived, but they kindly let us pass.

Unfortunately the awesome, laser-cut dihedral pictured in Brad Johnson’s book is actually on an adjacent route called Dion’s Dihedral, but our route featured some pretty cool climbing nonetheless. The purported mid 5.11 cruxes would be well-protected 10c or 10d in Tuolumne or Yosemite, but there is a lot of runout 5.8 to 5.9 climbing. This nineteen pitch route is doable in a day for confident 5.10 climbers; we took eight hours by swapping leads without simul-climbing.

Awesome finger crack after the 10+ undercling traverse. Photo by Vitaliy.

Incredible finger crack after the 10+ undercling traverse. Photo by Vitaliy.

Second 10+ crux. Awesome, juggy roof.

Second 10+ crux. Awesome, juggy roof. Photo by Vitaliy.

Vitaliy follows aforementioned roof.

Vitaliy follows aforementioned roof.

Nearing the top, entering the shade.

Nearing the top, entering the shade.

Some terrain on the way.

Some terrain on the way.

Clean albeit slippery granite alternated with vegetation and lichen. Around 1 pm we lost the sun and entered the blisteringly cold shade. Even with four layers on it was fairly miserable; we motored along and arrived at the summit at 4 pm.

Yours truly atop La Esfinge.

Yours truly atop La Esfinge.

With only brief confusion we found the rappels at a notch in the ridge and made five with a single 70m rope onto a broad swathe of slabs. From there we walked off to a talus field and thence back to camp. We made it back without taking out our headlamps!

Rappel descent. Cool wave of granite on the right.

Easy rappel descent. Cool wave of granite on the right.

Back to camp without headlamp power!

Back to camp without headlamp power!

After a blustery night–thankfully I remembered my earplugs–we found the trail and hiked down. There was an anniversary festival for the Laguna Paron dam at the trailhead replete with drums, cuy, and dancing schoolchildren. If we’d waited until mid afternoon we could have taken a cheap collectivo back to town but were impatient and hired a taxi. That was the right choice–the cake that night was worth the wasted soles. Now back to the snowy mountains…

Chacraraju Este

Stuck between fear of objective hazards and unwillingness to disappoint my partner, I cried. We were under the French Direct on Chacraraju Oeste, which is ED2 . The route ascends almost 1000m of ice up to WI5 M6 and is threatened by an enormous cornice. It would take twenty rappels on natural anchors to descend, never mind the ascent for which the guidebook advises taking two to three days.

Top of Chacraraju Este. Photo by Vitaliy.

Top of Chacraraju Este. Photo by Vitaliy.

I didn’t want to climb. Climbing these mountains seemed stupid and unsafe, and I just wanted to be at Andino’s with coffee and cake. Vitaliy was visibly frustrated, but when I shed some tears he gave me a hug. We descended to Laguna 69 and abandoned the climb.

I’ve been told that I’m reckless. I’ve free soloed—that is, climbed ropeless—up to 5.9. I’ve skied alone for days in avalanche terrain. I don’t think I’m reckless, though; I feel in control on rock and in control when I choose safe routes through the back country. I don’t feel in control under seracs and cornices, and I have trouble accepting the risk of climbing routes that they threaten. Under the French Direct I couldn’t stand the idea of being under that cornice for thirty hours or more. For the first time since my first trad leads years ago I was shit scared.

At Laguna 69 we changed our plans and went to climb Chacraraju Este instead via the ED1 Jaeger Route. It’s still threatened by a colossal cornice but seemed safer than the French Direct. It was a compromise which balanced my fear, my desire to climb, and my obligation to be a decent partner to the guy who took two months off work for this trip. The route is shorter than the French Direct but still packs a formidable reputation; though three-quarters of the route is easy snow and ice, the last few pitches are outstandingly hard and keep nearly all parties from reaching the summit. To quote the famous British alpinist, Nick Bullock, “the summit [of Chacraraju Este] was not climbed to, as life appeared more favourable.”

Closer view of Chacraraju Este.

Chacraraju Este. Photo by Vitaliy.

Chacraraju Oeste on left, Este on right.

Chacraraju Oeste on left, Este on right.

map chacraraju

Thanks again, Google Maps.

We left Huaraz on Sunday, July 21, for Laguna 69. Like usual we humped our gear through the approach without burros, but unusually we took fancy gringo transport which our hostel owners arranged for us. We didn’t have a great reason for this besides wanting to ride with gringo girls.

We arrived at the trailhead just as some crappy weather blew through, and as it would turn out we would finish our climb just as more crappy weather came in. We’ve been lucky—everyone else has been shut down over and over by snow and wind. We made camp at the especially gringotastic Laguna 69 and settled in for the night. The next morning we got a late start, packed camp, and moved up some unbelievably fresh and therefore loose talus to the toe of the glacier under Chacraraju Oeste. Running on low psych, I bailed before we even started. As we descended to Laguna 69 I considered moving my return flight up to get back to my familiar and safe Sierra Nevada. I didn’t think I cared for this alpine stuff anymore. I just wanted to get another climb over with so I wouldn’t have the guilt of ruining our trip looming overhead before jetting off for home early.

Three Chileans joined us at camp that night and told us they were also going to climb the Jaeger Route. Their plan was to move camp the next day onto the glacier near the bergshrund, which is a giant crevasse right under alpine faces. The ‘shrund is something like 2500 ft above the lake. Tired of our heavy packs, we decided to gamble on our fitness by keeping camp at the laguna and merely breaking trail to the bergshrund the next day. That would mean an extra 2500 ft of elevation gain on summit day, but that would take us 1.5 hrs tops.

Breaking trail.

Breaking trail.

More breaking trail, now near the bergshrund.

More breaking trail, now near the bergshrund.

Breaking trail across the approach glacier was unbelievably hard work. In places I plowed a path waist-deep, and it took us three hours to ascend what took us twenty minutes to descend. We got back to camp in early afternoon after stashing our gear high in the moraine next to the glacier. I ate a half kilo of salami and felt fantastic; maybe this alpine climbing thing is OK, I thought.

We slept around sunset and were awake a bit before midnight. I felt strong and we made it to our gear cache, which was about 2000 ft above camp, in less than an hour. Crampons and harnesses on, we were at the bergshrund by 3 am and simul-climbing the endless fifty-five degree snow at the bottom of the Jaeger Route. In several simul-blocks protected with the occasional ice screw or picket, we finished the bottom three-quarters of the route by early morning. The views of the Huandoys, Chopicalqui, Huascaran, and the clouds spilling in from the Amazon were incredible.

Psyched to go, woo! Midnight!

Some wankers ready to crush. Photo by Vitaliy.

Morning views from halfway up the Jaeger Route.

Morning views from halfway up the Jaeger Route. Photo by Vitaliy.

Route overview.

Route overview.

At the three-quarter mark we started to pitch everything out. The angle ramped up and there were vertical steps of hollow, unprotected ice; screws would bite and dig in for an inch but spin uselessly in air pockets underneath. We swapped leads through this part as the floor of clouds climbed higher and eventually engulfed us. Vitaliy led past the toothy icicles and set our third-to-last belay (and last bomber belay) in a runnel 30 ft under the formidable summit cornice. It was around 11 am. I climbed past the belay in a claustrophobic snow runnel with my back pressed against the right wall, my feet on the left wall, and my axes buried deep in powder snow in the back. As I inched up precariously I slammed Vitaliy with huge pieces of snow. After the runnel ended I found myself under the summit cornice, which was 20 ft thick above. I could either traverse right, as recommended in Brad Johnson’s book, or go left. Right looked hard so I chose to go left to a spot where the cornice was only 8 ft thick; I would try to dig through the cornice there to get on the summit ridge.

Somewhere around the three-quarters mark.

Somewhere around the three-quarters mark.

Some of the steeper climbing before the cornice shenanigans.

Some of the steeper climbing before the cornice shenanigans.

Vitaliy takes us to "Vitaliy's belay" in the annotated photo below.

Vitaliy takes us to “Vitaliy’s belay” in the annotated photo below.

Route under the cornice.

Route under the cornice.

As I traversed left under the severely overhung cornice I had to cross the famous Andean “honeycombs.” These are thin, delicate ridges which separate snow runnels, and they’re prone to collapse at the slightest touch. With axes in last season’s barely consolidated snow I inched left with feet planted only in hope and prayer. As honeycomb after honeycomb collapsed and drained into the couloir below I was glad that the Chileans never started that morning.

When I arrived at the thin part of the cornice I found that it overhung enough that I couldn’t stand straight to dig. I threw in an ice tool undercling with my left arm and leaned backwards to dig with the other. An hour and countless forearm shake-outs later, I’d dug a vertical hole in the cornice but found it impossible to climb, as the snow was so loose. I couldn’t make a belay where I was, and even if I could we wouldn’t be able to bail from there as there were no anchors and I’d traversed so far left into no-man’s land that we didn’t know what was below. I couldn’t reverse some of my moves to Vitaliy’s anchor without risking a fall on marginal gear, either. As is usually the case in these alpine gong shows, the only way down was up.

Recalling some of Colin Haley’s shenanigans in Patagonia, I tried to aid up the cornice on snow pickets. I girth-hitched two slings and used them as makeshift aiders. I planted one picket in decent snow and it seemed bomber. The next wasn’t quite as good, and as I clipped in it blew and before I knew what was happening I was suspended from my right foot, hanging literally in midair under the cornice from crampons snagged in my aider. Vitaliy never felt a tug; my weight was fully on my foot above my head. Dangling at 6000m scared witless, I started to hyperventilate. I had to calm myself, still upside down, to get my breathing under control.

I did an upside-down sit-up, grabbed the carabiner on the picket, and tried to dynamically unclip my aider from the bottom picket. That didn’t work and I just winded myself; it’s hard to do upside down sit-ups at 6000m. I fell back down into my bat hang.

On the next go I tried to pry the bottom sling from my crampon points one point at a time. This worked, but as I got to the last point I realized that I would fall on the vertical snow runnels below if I untangled the last one. I dug an axe in, ready for the fall, and as my foot popped out of the aider I flipped over and landed with my weight on that axe placement. Alpine acrobatics—I wonder if I’d ever be able to do that trick back home?

After getting back into the normal climbing position and letting my heart rate settle, I realized that I was soaked—literally dripping water—from a combination of digging through Andean powder and the white out mist around us. It was 2 pm; I’d spent three hours on this lead. I really needed to finish; I was starting to shiver despite having five layers on my torso. I half-heartedly tried to dig another hole where the cornice was less overhung, but it was just too strenuous from the undercling and would take several more hours. I noticed, however, that the cornice seemed to end at a notch in the summit ridge forty feet to my left. I decided to traverse there despite the mysteriously vertical and impossible-looking snow runnels under the most severely overhung part of the the cornice. Why hadn’t I noticed this notch before? The traverse from my position looked stupidly dangerous.

As I traversed left I moved farther and farther from the security of the picket which caught my fall. Ten feet from the notch and thirty from the picket I found myself hanging from two pick placements in a rare patch of good ice, but with my crampons scratching at empty air. Desperate to finish, I put enormous amounts of trust in my left tool, matched, and campused left. I repeated that move twice before I gained a ramp to the notch. With five feet of rope left, I peeked over the notch to the Paron Valley. If we weren’t engulfed in a white out I’d have been able to see Caraz and La Esfinge. All I saw was that the cornice looked surmountable from the notch. I downclimbed to a stance, threw in a belay which had as much a chance of holding a fall as one does of winning the lottery, and settled into a long belay. It was 2:30 pm, and my lead had taken nearly four hours. I was careful not to move my legs because every time they touched my soaking pants I shivered.

When Vitaliy reached the half-dug cornice tunnels and realized he’d have to repeat the 40 ft traverse to the notch, he balked and tried to finish the aid job. After a few sputtering efforts he resigned himself to doing the traverse. To say it was unpalatable would be a gross understatement; fortunately Vitaliy shines brightest when the situation is the most dire, and after surprisingly few curses he repeated the traverse. As he sketched out on the campus moves I told him, “I did the traverse without knowing what was ahead of me. You can do it, there are good sticks.” Later he said that encouragement actually helped.

When Vitaliy reached the belay he asked me to lead the next pitch. I told him that I was shivering too much to stand on the summit ridge in the wind on belay; he would have to lead it. He set off to the notch and tunneled onto the summit ridge at last. In four hours we’d moved up fifty vertical feet and were finally on the ridge instead of eight feet below it. When he reached the summit proper he whooped and I whooped back.

Finally the summit after four hours on the last pitch. That's Chacraraju Oeste in the miste.

Finally the summit after four hours for 50 ft. Chacraraju Oeste is in the mist.

Yay!

Some wankers on the summit of Chacraraju Este.

At the summit we dug a four-foot deep T slot for our rappel anchor—a buried snow picket. The rappel from the summit would involve sailing over the thickest part of the cornice and would be free-hanging for twenty feet, so the anchor needed to be bomber. Back in high school, my best friend Janée and I used to play rock-paper-scissors to decide things because we were the most indecisive, spineless humans imaginable. With the prospect of putting all of our weight on a single picket, Vitaliy and I opted to repeat this game to see who would go down first. It was unclear whether going first with a back-up picket, vertically-oriented, was better or if going second was better to avoid dying upon ripping both out. We decided that it didn’t matter since the second person would shiver to death on the summit if the ropes disappeared with the first guy. The thought was morbid but amusing, and as I watched Vitaliy slide over the lip of the cornice without the picket ripping it occurred to me how great this all was.

What followed were thirteen rappels, all on V-threads except two more snow picket anchors. We threaded our 8mm ropes directly through the V-thread holes so we didn’t leave anything except pickets on the mountain. After a sputtering go with Vitaliy’s magic V-thread tool I reverted to using our good old-fashioned coat hanger-like candela to make the holes. By the third or fourth rappel I would consistently finish the holes by the time Vitaliy arrived at the anchor so we flew down the raps. Good thing—I’d expected that we’d be hard-up on anchors and would have to slowly downclimb the route.

Yours truly raps off a bomber V-thread. Photo by Vitaliy.

Yours truly raps off a bomber V-thread. Photo by Vitaliy.

Our V-thread setup. Photo by Vitaliy.

Our V-thread setup. Photo by Vitaliy.

We stopped rappelling 100m above the bergshrund and downclimbed easy snow until we were at the crack. We saw the Chileans’ headlamps farther down the glacier and decided to stop to say hi and wish them luck, though I was skeptical anyone would climb in the whiteout and snow. They fed us some condensed milk and gave us some water, which was welcome as we’d greedily dumped our water on the third-to-last pitch under delusions of finishing in less than an hour.

The plod back to camp at Laguna 69 was slow and treacherous, since the recently-exposed talus was covered in snow and slippery. We arrived back at camp at 10 pm twenty-two hours after leaving. I ate some ramen, drank some hot chocolate, and passed out. The tent was soaked from the snow and rain, but I didn’t notice; my hot chocolate kept me warm until morning.

The next day was stormy, and as we hiked out I got screaming barfies in my hands from my 60 lb pack straps cutting off circulation to my arms. Remarkably some tourists still plodded up to the lake in the horrendous weather. At the trailhead we met a group of generous Austrian tourists who gave us a free lift to Yungay. Their private bus would stop every ten minutes for them to get out and take pictures, which was simultaneously endearing and frustrating as we were starving and had finished the last of our food that morning. Otto, their leader, was an English teacher and exceptionally amiable; my fondness for him might be explained by the food he gave us.

And in conclusion—mom, dad, other terrified relatives, and the precious few friends who read this—I am out of my funk and totally psyched to climb some more. Chacraraju was a blessing.

Thirty Squealing Guinea Pigs

First a picture of the awesome Alpamayo.

Alpamayo from the col.

Alpamayo from the col.

Pretty huh? Now we can talk about something less boring than a perfect mountain. It might seem ironic to sing praises for collectivos when I’ve been stuffed into their trunks, but they’re twenty times cheaper than taxis and possibly the only way to see a mesh sack of thirty squealing guinea pigs loaded onto the roof of your van. Later in that ride I pointed out to our door man, whose responsibilities are to collect fares and to hang precariously out of the door of the moving van to find clients, that the bag of guinea pigs was drooping over the side of the van. Safely in a lady’s lap, the chicken in the seat ahead protested as we pulled over and spent ten minutes securing the guinea pigs to the roof again. Taxis are faster—no sacks of grains to unload, no squealing cuy, no walking from station to station with heavy backpacksbut they are lame.

No guinea pigs this time, but voila the inside of a nearly vacant collectivo.

No guinea pigs this time, but voila the inside of a nearly vacant collectivo.

V and I just returned to Huaraz after climbing Alpamayo and Quitaraju. Luckily this morning V also had an episode of diarrhea, so I don’t feel so lonely anymore. I’m going on day three with loose stools, but the situation hasn’t been as bad as the day I climbed Alpamayo in a first ever five-hour, three-poop tent-to-tent dash. Nevertheless the persistent diarrhea makes sitting in places where I can’t poop on a dime, like collectivos, logistically complicated; I tell myself that complexity is the richness of life, but it’s hard to really believe that when my hard-won post climb meal comes out in an explosion of noises which definitely won’t win me the favor of the cute French girls next door.

Map of hike to Alpamayo and Quitaraju (thanks Google Maps)

Map of hike to Alpamayo and Quitaraju (thanks Google Maps)

Last Monday we took a one-and-a-half hour collectivo for two dollars to a large town called Caraz. From there we walked uphill to the open air central market and found another collectivo headed to Cashapampa, which is a village at the mouth of the Santa Cruz valley. This tiny but steep-sided gap in the foothills actually opens up into a broad valley that cuts across the entire range in twelve unrelenting miles. At the end of it you either continue right over a pass called Punta Union to the end of the popular Santa Cruz trek, or you take a left into a hanging valley to Alpamayo base camp. Having neglected to have read anything about the approach, I was surprised that the first five miles of what I thought was going to be a pleasant, flat stroll turned out to gain over three thousand feet of elevation in the scorching low-altitude tropical sun.

At mile five we arrived at Llamacorral, which is a tiny village disappointingly devoid of llamas but replete with food. Hardcore gringos that we are we tried to stuff a week’s food, our camping stuff, and our winter climbing gear including two ropes, ice screws, pickets, gloves, ice tools, and crampons into our mid-sized packs. The fifteen other parties we met all hired burros—not hardcore. After gaining three thousand feet and realizing that Alpamayo glacier camp was still five thousand vertical feet and ten miles away, I bought some food and ate it all since it wouldn’t fit in my pack.

V lounges at camp one in Q. Santa Cruz. The landslide debris is in the background.

V lounges at camp one in Q. Santa Cruz. The landslide debris is in the background.

That night we pitched a tent sooner than expected around the second lake because it was reportedly snowing and raining ahead. Several parties that descended from Alpamayo base camp without having stepped foot on the glacier complained that the weather had been miserable for five days. Locals believe that bad weather accompanies the new or full moon; here was one unequivocal data point.

Quebrada Santa Cruz experienced a catastrophic land slide two years ago during the wet season. An entire quenual forest was wiped out as the slide propagated five miles down valley and deposited a broad tongue of sand. We camped at the margin of the slide on the first night in some bushes because the sandy wasteland was too vast and exposed!

Bottom of slide.

Bottom of slide.

Top of slide.

Top of slide.

Tuesday we hiked to Alpamayo base camp and dropped our stuff in the meadow before hiking to the edge of the glacier for acclimatization. Although it was only our second day I complained about low food supplies—I had already eaten all my snacks and cookies. I insisted that we get a hot dinner at the hut on the edge of the meadow. The woman inside was more comfortable speaking Quechua than Spanish, and she made made a wonderful dish with fried potatoes, peppers, and eggs. Unfortunately I think this is where the aforementioned gastrointestinal woes began.

The next day we moved camp four thousand feet up and over a glacier and pass to Alpamayo col camp. Camp was fresh and the toilets—holes in the snow—were hardly yellow or brown, since no one had been up there for a week as it dumped snow. Camp was an international village with Japanese, Slovenian, Austrian, German, Spanish, and American teams nearby. One of the Americans lives on Arden Road in Pasadena and I routinely run by his house!

Quitaraju from camp.

Quitaraju from camp.

Bottom of the north face.

Bottom of the north face.

Since weather had put off parties for a week there was a backlog of summit-crazed gringos and we decided that Alpamayo would be too much of a shit show on Thursday. We turned our eyes to the neighboring and higher Quitaraju. Its west ridge is apparently the easiest route, but it began on the other side of a glacial plateau with no broken trail so we decided to do its north face despite obvious signs of slab avalanches. Any fears we had were quickly allayed when we discovered that the north face, by virtue of baking in the sun all day, was entirely neve and hard ice. We simul-climbed the sixty degree ice in three blocks to the summit ridge, which I traversed by wading in snow to at least my shins and often my waist. The effort at 6000 m, or nearly 20,000 ft, was surprisingly easy; I guess we’re getting acclimatized!

Quitaraju summit ridge.

Quitaraju summit ridge.

We thought we’d descend the straightforward west ridge after our summit but it looked significantly harder and more strenuous than simply descending the face. Problem: we only had one rope, which would mean rappelling on our own abalakovs fifteen times; with two ropes you only need to rappel half as much. Instead of the tedium of that we simul-downclimbed while placing screws every hundred feet and made one screw, two firmly-planted ice tool anchors to switch simul blocks. The routine was that whoever had followed the last down lead would get lowered two hundred feet to the end of the rope, placing screws at the hundred and two hundred foot marks, then we would simul climb until we ran out of screws. We did four one hundred foot rappels over the iciest and steepest terrain.

An abalakov, or V-thread, anchor.

An abalakov, or V-thread, anchor.

We had left camp at the unconventionally late time of 7 am—the Alpamayo groups all start between midnight and three in the morning—but got back a bit before sunset. Our three Coloradan friends next door had brewed an extra liter of water for us, which was especially welcome as we’d run out of water four hours ago on the summit ridge. I had my first of many toilet experiences that afternoon and told Vitaliy that the quality of my stool was inconsistent with an Alpamayo ascent the next day. Like the good partner he is, he began to offer little bribes “in exchange for some suffering.” He said, “I’ll take your boots down to Cashapampa so you won’t have to carry them again.” He saw that I was unconvinced and continued, “I’ll give you half of my Snickers bar.” As I was still unconvinced he really went for it, “and my last bag of peanut M&M’s.” I told him I’d see how I felt in the morning.

After a restful night I felt good the next morning despite visiting the toilet thrice between sunrise and breakfast. I told V we should go for it. Alpamayo may be tall at 19,500 ft, but since camp is at 17,800 ft it’s not actually a particularly long climb. The terrain is sixty degree ice which steepens to eighty degrees on the last pitch, so we were confident we could climb quickly. The amiable Peruvian guide next door told us to be careful with undertones of “you crazy gringos, no one starts climbing Alpamayo at 10:30 am.” We actually thought it would be safer then, as most people would have finished climbing and there would be less ice fall.

After relieving myself in the bergshrund and kicking snow over the mess to cover up, I felt springy and led up the first simul block. A few rope lengths up awesome, easy neve I noticed that one of the nuts that holds one of the bolts on my pick had fallen off. The bolt followed and I was left climbing now steeper water ice with only one tool; the pick on the other one rotated uselessly around the one bolt left. I made an anchor, belayed Vitaliy, and wondered if we should descend. I realized that I could just follow the rest of the pitches, since it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t have the security of two tools then, so Vitaliy led the rest of the climb in the normal leader-follower style. In three hours from the tent we were on the summit.

Last pitch of the French Direct on Alpamayo.

Last pitch of the French Direct on Alpamayo.

Unfortunately on the way up one of the dozen climbers who were descending ragdolled down the face and came to rest a hundred meters below the bergshrund. The body didn’t move for twenty minutes and we feared the worst until someone from camp ascended to the climber and helped her back to camp. We saw a lot of blood during the rappels and assumed it was related. As it turns out the blood belonged to a Polish guy who was smacked in the face by icefall on the first pitch but continued to climb; he apparently also hip belayed his two followers from the summit without attaching to the in situ rappel anchor, preferring the tried-and-true Polish hardman ass-and-foot anchor. The last pitch is the crux of the route with eighty degree ice.

The fallen climber had pulled a single picket rappel anchor. Since she just broke her ankle I will go ahead and scrutinize the accident. V and I have been backing up all of our rappels with screws or planted tools until the last climber descends, and we think this practice could have saved this German woman a lot of trauma. By nature metal anchors will melt out in the sun, especially here above much of the atmosphere and in the tropics. Even if pickets are well-placed by experienced guides, they should be backed up if possible. With a plethora of ice nearby for abalakovs there were other options.

Alpamayo base camp.

Alpamayo high camp.

In any case we descended to camp efficiently and were briefly admired by our friends from Colorado—our friends who climb 5.14 and have no business being impressed with dudes who hike fast. Matt complained that Alpamayo was harder than climbing 5.14 or climbing El Cap. Alpamayo felt more like a stroll than a climb to us, so maybe we should start climbing 5.14 for the sick sponsor deals.

View from the tent in the morning.

View from the tent in the morning.

The next day we woke up early and packed for the 8000 ft, 14 mi descent to Cashapampa with our sixty pound backpacks. The last collectivo leaves around 4 or 5 pm so we had to hike fairly quickly. I left camp with four layers on my torso, but as soon as we crested the col and were in the sun I peeled them all off save a t-shirt; the difference in temperature here between sun and shade is outrageous. After an interminable and hasty jaunt we finally arrived in Cashapampa at 4 and ran into the national park guard who almost didn’t let us into the park because we forgot our AAC cards and didn’t have a guide. He seemed pleased that we hadn’t needed a rescue or anything annoying like that. We caught the last collectivo (which took a fifteen minute detour to drop off a package at the driver’s house) then descended to Caraz and thence to Huaraz, where I am currently typing this on battery power since the electricity is off. This morning V and I finally availed ourselves of the free breakfast at our hostel; since we both have diarrhea we can’t get any worse, right? The breakfast was actually quite good and we even socialized with some people.

Next we’re going sport climbing again; now that I weigh five pounds less and crap out everything I eat I think I can send my 5.12a project. But who knows, since 5.14 is easier than Alpamayo I might try something harder.