[This trip took place in July, 2015. This post took me a really long time to write, I hope it entertains. Sorry its sooo long]
I’m hanging from the end of the rope at 18,000 feet. Its 11pm, it’s cold, it’s dark, and the snow is blowing. My left testicle is thoroughly pinched under my harness leg loop and my feet dangle just inches above a ledge on which I could not quite stand to relieve the agony. “SLACK!!” My plea is answered only by a shower of snow and ice from above. My core muscles quiver against the 90 pound pack trying to flip me upside down, I hug the taught rope and wait. “Want us to haul you?” Dan calls down to me. How come I could hear him so well? “Yes, but give me some slack first!” Another ice shower responds, my feet paw fruitlessly at the ledge, the leg loop holds fast. Fuck.
The three of us, Dan, Spencer and I, had been planning this trip for months. An expedition to Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, a high altitude alpine playground with beautiful mountains, great climbing, easy access, and cheap everything. Despite the popularity of this region to climbers, trekkers, and tourists and the infrastructure related to these pursuits we still had quite a time just getting into the mountains. Within 48 hours after arriving in Peru we had negotiated crooked cab drivers, half day bus rides, busy markets, overloaded motor-tricycles, and busted vans finally finding ourselves at the trailhead to the Santa Cruz Valley and the home to our objective: Alpamayo. As we took our first steps the freedom and freshness of the mountains relieved our pre-expedition stress induced headaches. Allotting just enough time for us to appreciate our clear minds, the altitude pounded into our skulls like a railroad spike that would remain for the duration.
Our first couple days in the valley were straightforward: carry the pack, follow the trail, and try not to bust any ligaments. We were disregarding the suggestions offered us in our guide book, most notably; hire some damn donkeys. They’re cheap, they carry all your shit to base camp, and they save your body for the climb. We decided to forgo this advice. In hindsight I would like to say it was because we wanted to do it under human power, on our own two legs, mano a montaña, but in reality we didn’t want to deal with the logistical and financial implications of procuring donkeys, hiring a handler, and acquiring food and shelter for the lot. Turns out its nearly effortless and reasonably priced… Next time.
We found ourselves making good time despite our 100lb starting loads and suffered only from blisters on our feet, backs, and hips, sore muscles, tight tendons, and no doubt a slew of mental disorders requisite for mountaineering endeavors. On day three we bypassed official base camp, its outhouses, green grass, clear streams, beer salesmen, and multi-gendered climbing groups, in order to gain an additional 2,000 feet of elevation to sleep on dust, drink fecal water, and smear our shit on rocks. We adored it so much we decided to take our first rest day there at 16,000 feet while enjoying each other’s mono-gendered company and the persistent skull fuck courtesy of the altitude.
On day five we began our move onto the glacier, over a saddle, and into high camp. Stepping off of solid ground we were quite happy to have a rope between us as we navigated the glaciers massive and many crevasses. After a few hours of snaking through the ice we found ourselves beneath markedly steeper terrain before reaching the saddle. Due to the size of our packs and the consequence of a fall we decided to pitch this section out. That is to say, a leader would climb up trailing the ropes (belayed by the others), build an anchor at the top of the section or when he runs out of rope (called a pitch in the climbing world), and then he would belay up the two followers. Rinse, repeat, and that’s how you climb a mountain. The first pitch was quite mellow. The second was surprisingly steep requiring me to lead it without my pack, bring Dan and Spencer up then lower down, grab my pack and re-climb it with the rope safely above me. The third pitch was quite mellow again. The fourth and final pitch to the top of the saddle appeared impossibly steep. The wall was made up of horizontal bands of soft snow and hard ice; the snow would slough away leaving a small roof of ice which we needed to ascend if we had any hope of even reaching the base of Alpamayo. Luckily there was a rope hanging from the top of the wall somewhere, a rope we could use to aid our ascent. A rope that unfortunately, led us astray from the correct route and into a minor epic.
When I first approached the wall I realized it rose out of a crevasse and I would have to tip toe on small snow bridges to sink my picks into the face. Looking right I noticed a much mellower ramp of snow that would lead to the top of the wall, the prospect of tiptoeing across more sketchy bridges inspired me first to attempt to ascend the rope dangling straight down.
Using two prusiks (loops of cord that bite onto a rope) I tried to ascend the hanging fixed line, a task that is quite challenging even in controlled environments. While sitting with my weight on one prusik I slid the other higher on the rope, rocked up, and stood in its loop. I could then move the lower one up, sit in it and repeat the process inching my way to the top. It makes sense… in theory. First I tried with my pack on, I made no progress, then I removed my pack and tried again. Gained an inch. I could feel Spencer and Dan’s tired, nervous, and hopeful eyes on my back, watching me flounder and dangle above a bus-eater crevasse trusting myself to some random rope/anchor. Every time I made progress the rope would stretch or cut into the snow above gaining me nothing. I felt deeply pathetic, hopeless even, as my friends watched me suck. The complex mixture of stress, discomfort, exhaustion, and fear had me ready to give up and go home. We weren’t even on the mountain yet and we were being shut down.
I waddled back to the belay with my tail between my legs, Spencer and Dan could read my complicated emotions from a glance at my face. Luckily for our Alpamayo dreams we where a team, and where I felt ready to give up, Spencer was ready to keep trying no matter what. Spence took the lead and after a bit of a battle, made it to the top of the wall. We were gonna get up this thing but it would take a long time. Having already spent around 2 hours on this 20 meter section Spencer began hauling up his pack. It got stuck in the overhang so Dan climbed up behind it and pushed it with him as he ascended. That left me at the bottom with two 90lb packs; I clipped in Dan’s pack and managed it from below while the guys hauled from above. This process had taken another two hours. Now it was my turn, impatient I put on my pack and tried to climb with it, trying to save us another haul. Pulling over the little ice roof I scrunched onto a small ledge like a beached whale, legs flailing, trying to wiggle one ice axe free so I could replace it higher and get my feet under me. Having over sunk the pick I couldn’t jiggle it free before the muscles failed on my other arm. I fell, not far, but enough to shake my weakened resolve. With my stubborn ice axe still thoroughly sunk above the roof and me thoroughly sunk below it, I wasn’t going to be able to climb. There I was, teste crushed, crampons scraping for purchase, hugging the rope, waiting to be hauled up like a sack of shit as described in this posts first paragraph.
After a strenuous and painful haul/climb we found ourselves together again atop of that slice of shite. We were on the saddle between Alpamayo and Quitaraju at ~18,500ft, it had been dark for many hours, it was sufficiently cold, and had been blowing snow pretty persistently. After poking around a bit for the route down to the typical high camp at the base of the mountain we decided we’d be better off camping on the saddle and not wandering down unknown glaciated terrain in the dark. After I probed out an area and felt confident we weren’t on a crevasse we got ready to set up camp. As we did so a group of porters rocked up behind us, they where locals that where hired by a guided party to carry loads to high camp. They had passed us about 5 hours earlier on their way all the way down to base camp to pick up fuel for their group. They had done what took us 2 pretty heavy travel days one way in 5 hours both ways! From my journal: “What the fuck! Needless to say we felt pretty defective; we had obviously gone the wrong way on that last pitch.” The porters did a good job not laughing in our baffled faces and led us down to the populated high camp a few minutes away.
While I would love to ignore this failure and instead use it as an epic to brag about, I am obligated to study and learn from my mistake despite how frustrating it is for me to think about even months later. Along with minor errors that contributed to our situation; such as a later start, and “tunnel vision” on the fixed line, our (my) biggest blunder was not investigating or probing the snow bridges leading to the easy ramp and subsequently committing to a risky and time consuming strategy.
The next two days were spent licking our wounds, acclimatizing, enjoying spectacular views, and wondering if we deserved to climb this beautiful alpine face. On the third “day” at high camp we woke up at 3am to check out the weather for an attempt on the mountain. Clear skies. No excuses. In the predawn quite, cold, and darkness we began cooking breakfast, drinking some instant mocha’s (a godsend), and stomping our feet to keep warm and settle our nerves. Another group at high camp began to wake up; it seemed we wouldn’t be alone on the face. In seemingly no time they were starting toward the base of the route, the supported nature of their trip allowed them to sleep in while the cook made breakfast and the guide organized gear. They snuck ahead of us in line and we worried about eating there falling ice all day. With that we decided to wait another couple hours to allow the climbers to get a little further up the face before we began nipping at their heels.
At 5:30 we began the short and mellow approach to the base of the route. Our first obstacle was to cross the bergschrund and gain access to the face. A bergschrund is an often massively deep crevasse that separates the glacier from the stagnant ice/rock behind. With guided groups having gang-banged the route the past couple days there where fixed lines draped over the entire face for protection and ascension. Kind of a bummer because it takes a lot of adventure out of the climb but at the same time it added significantly to the chance of success. I threw a friction hitch onto the fixed line as a back up and lead across the ‘schrund while placing pickets (snow stakes) for additional protection. As I began the next pitch of ~55° snow I noticed the guided group already descending from the summit and removing the fixed lines behind them. Using mechanical ascenders attached to the ropes they sped up the route in two hours without ever swinging their ice tools! The clients were clearly a bit bummed by their method of ascent; I mean who would want to climb a rope when you’re carrying medieval weapons made for smashing ice? Within no time we had the route to ourselves without a fixed line in sight. Adventure on.
Once atop the first three pitches the difficult to protect snow climbing was behind us and now steeper ice stood in our path. Dan and Spencer weren’t too keen to hop on the ‘sharp end’ so I kept out in front making each pitch a full 60 meter rope stretcher. The climbing on the next pitches was super repetitive, boring, and tiring. I had to stop to breathe every 15 feet or so. The low angle of the ice (~60°) allowed me to use various crampon techniques that would save my muscles for the final, steeper pitches.
Now with 6 pitches below us we were quite high on the face perched beneath a menacing snow mushroom. The next pitch traversed right, breaking out of the runnel we had been climbing, and heading towards weaknesses in the formations that would lead us to the top. The variation in climbing style was very welcome but the impending doom of the final pitch loomed over me. From the next anchor I knew there was only one pitch to go.
Dan and Spencer had a pretty modest amount of ice climbing experience before this trip; I had a bit more with one season under my belt. Before the trip even started I knew it would be on me as soon as the climbing got harder and that if I couldn’t climb it our trip was over. This self-inflicted pressure was building throughout the climb and it was time to see if I could get us to the top. It was my turn to carry the team, like they had carried me on our epic a few nights before.
Starting off the eighth and final pitch I continued traversing right another 20 meters, then straight up for 20 more meters of spectacular climbing on 70-75° beautiful blue ice that protected well with ice screws. I saw ridge top a mere 15 feet above me, a welcome view had I not seen what it would take to get there. The blue ice gave way to vertical cornice snow, soft from a day’s worth of unhindered sunshine, and capped with a small roof carved by the boots of rappelling climbers. Not super confident I poked my way over to check it out. My tools would only bite in the occasional dense patch so I relied on stemming my feet on the sugar walls of the runnel. Reality struck as I found myself at head height with the overhang, trying to get my tools in above as if I was swinging into the filling of a bean bag. Fear pulled the moisture out of my mouth and pushed it through my skin. I felt hollow. Continuing to thrutch I felt a piece of cord above the lip, I gave it a tug and in a bit of a “fuck it” mentality pulled myself, beached whale style, over the edge. Now standing on this shelf of packaging peanuts I did not find the relief I was looking for, a peek over the ridge and down the steep north face on the other side of the mountain did little to calm my nerves. I carefully walked along the ridge to another grouping of random old cord and webbing, the summit anchor. There I was at 19,511 feet standing on top of my computers wallpaper, watching the earth curve away in every direction after the most challenging experience of my life. My joy was sharp but brief. I felt physically ill from the precariousness of our situation. I belayed the guys up after backing up the anchor. My throat dry, my breath hot and vile.
By now it was 5:30pm, we had been on the route for nearly 12 hours and the sun was about to set. We shared a short lived “Holy shit we did it!” moment on our summit perch, snapped a few pictures, and began our descent rappelling back down the route. The stress of leading all day had reduced my mental armor to a loin cloth. Dan and Spencer, with relatively clearer minds did all the thinking while I followed down the ropes. Go team.
As we fiddled with ropes and carabiners the sun dipped below the horizon behind us. Established on the descent, showered in glowing orange light and cooled by dense purple sky, with the delicate snow busses refreezing above us, I took a deep breath, smiled, and reminded myself that life is, in fact, good. Really fricken good.
Below the bergschrund again after eight cold and uncomfortable rappels we stashed the ropes in our packs and stumbled back towards camp arriving at 9:30pm after 16 hours on the move. We bumped into a Coloradan who was planning to climb the next day, I was so excited to tell him about the route but the look on his face after I finished stammering led me to believe I wasn’t making a ton of sense.
We ate a quick dinner and I slept heavily. The next morning it became apparent that both Spencer and Dan were suffering from snow blindness. Spencer with his eyes nearly swollen shut was clearly not having fun. Although we were only in the sun for about an hour during the climb, there must have been enough light bouncing off the ice to damage their corneas. I wore sunglasses, like a boss, and was unscathed.
After packing up camp very slowly we left high camp and headed back over the pass and down towards base camp. Although we had plenty of time and food to take a relaxed approach to our exit from the mountains, we continued in sufferfest style and HAULED ASS outta there, passing groups of trekkers with no packs, comfy shoes, and baffled looks on their faces. It still took us three days but we left it all out on the playing field. I could write a book about my body’s aches on that final death march to the trailhead, but it will save you some boring reading and me some writing if you take my word for it; it was Brutal (capital ‘b’).
After 11 total days of hard work in the hills we found ourselves in Cashapampa, a village at the valley’s end, indulging in civilizations greatest fruits; beer and Pringles. We arranged for a van to take us back to our hostel in the main city and as we drove along the dusty road I saw this country in a new light. “Suddenly Peru became beautiful, we no longer saw the dusty shithole we had seen on our arrival but instead we appreciated the landscape for what it was, and it was Good.”
We spent the next few days satiating our post expedition gluttony, dealing with the nonessential obligations of life, and getting ready for what was next. Spencer back to San Francisco to hurdle the homeless and arrange “product launch events” or something dumb like that (just kidding, buddy -xo). Dan back to Wisconsin to chug coffee, fix roofs, and listen to Taylor Swift. I was continuing south to Chile for yet another mountaineering trip. My third in a row.
[Congratulations, you’re the only person who actually read this! Thank you! Please let me know what you thought. Also, here’s a video I put together of the trip that makes it look like a lot of fun!]