High altitude technical climbing in the Andes
Artesonraju (6025m) via the South East Face
(D+, 55-75°, 800m)
The approach to the mountain was made via the Huaraz – Caraz – Laguna Paron road. At the west end of the lake, we reproduced several historic panoramas of the lake and Piramide peak before we skirted its northern shore. Our first camp was set at an area known as Timber Camp, situated in a small pampa at the east end of the lake. Early next morning, we ascended the treacherous moraine crest through some steep grassy slopes, and skirted left of some smooth slabs before going up a couloir and scree terraces to the glacier edge. A moraine camp was set an altitude of 4840m, overlooking the beautiful Paron glacier, Artesonraju and Piramide peaks. The next day, we crossed the Paron Glacier, negotiating several dangerous crevasses at the east end of the glacier and set a high camp at 5200m under the “safe protection” of a massive serac.
The summit day began very early in the morning (04:00) and included the ascent of a packed snow, ice and mixt terrain slope, 825m in level difference, at 45 – 80° inclination. We approached carefully the large bergschrund above our serac sheltar on the right and the mixt ground on the left of the face. Being for the first time at 5500m in this expedition, we felt the altitude effects: headaches, suffocation sensations and tiredness. Nevertheless, we pushed forward with the climb and focused all of our attention on the consistent steep ice climb. Around noon, the clouds started to cover the surrounding mountain peaks and soon a complete whiteout prevented us seeing more than 20m in front of us. Additionally, the last 100m of the ascent were mainly on hard, occasionally brittle ice, at 60-80° inclination. As a result of the whiteout, fatigue and altitude symptoms, we thought of abandoning the ascent. After we consulted the altimeter, however, we decided to make a final push. A few chunks of ice in our face, and almost blinded by the whiteout, we finally managed to reach the summit of Artesonraju around 15:00. Unfortunately, the summit view was very dull. I could barely see my partner, not to mention that the surrounding peaks and valleys were invisible. Slightly disappointed by the view but happy that we summited, we abseiled shortly using snow anchors and Abalakov threads. It took us a full day to return to Huaraz. A series of great feasts followed this endeavor ranging through Asian, European and of course South American dishes, including the notorious Cuy, known by westerners as Guiney Pig.
Yerupaja Grande (6635m) via the West Face
(TD+/ED1, 60-100°, 950m)
By far the most thrilling experience of this expedition was the ascent on Yerupaja Grande. A mountain made famous by Simon Yates and Joe Simpson in Touching the Void when climbing Siula Grande. This is the second highest peak in Peru and has seen very few successful ascents. Our initial idea was to climb Jirishanca, but after we had studied the snow and ice conditions we realized that our proposed Cassin and Czech-Slovak Routes on the west and southwest face of Jirishanca were impracticable due to the massive bergschrund and crevasses, up to 40m wide, and the lack of quality ice. Under these circumstances, we decided to attempt a climb instead on Yerupaja Grande via the southeast ridge.
From Laguna Jahuacocha, we skirted the lake until we reached the entrance of the swale between the south lateral moraine of Solteraocha and the southern slope of Jahuacocha valley. A faint climber’s trail rises through the swale and becomes narrow as it contours several hundred meters above the lake. There were many dangerous and exposed spots until the path turned steeply uphill and gained a plateau at 4500m. Our heavy packs made this ascent quite difficult. Next, we crossed a few boulders and climbed the crest of another lateral moraine towards the southeast and set camp, north of a banded rock formation. From this spot we admired the fragmented Tam and Yerupaja West glaciers as well as the surrounding peaks: Rondoy, Jirishanca, Mituraju, El Toro, Yerupaja Chico and Yerupaja Grande. Next morning we continued up the moraine, hitting the snowline at around 5000m. After crossing a few crevasses, we entered the open Yerupaja west glacier. From here, the splendour of Yerupaja’s west face could be admired: hundreds of seracs and crevasses including a massive one that was crossing the entire face. We climbed up the saddle between Seria Norte and Yerupaja through some dangerous penitentes and crevasses. In the saddle we realized that we were actually standing on a massive cornice, in fact the entire ridge was full of terrifying and unstable cornices on both sides. The view of Siula Grande – the famous mountain from Touching the Void reminded us that this was an alien and dangerous terrain. We returned to the col and set camp at around 5600m. The idea of an ascent on the southeast ridge was abandoned.
The night was terrible: wind, little oxygen and the sloping surface on which the tent was pitched, made our sleep impossible. Tired and annoyed, we left camp very early and started to zig zag between the giant seracs. We chose a fairly direct line on the west face situated between the southeast ridge and the 1950 American (Maxwell and Harrah) route. There were many sections of overhanging ice, massive crevasses and even a small incident where I almost got killed due to a TV-sized block of ice that dislocated along with my right hand ice axe. Fortunately, my partner was aware and secured me tightly and I eventually managed to reach the edge of the serac. At noon, we reached a point at 6250m, marked by a massive bergschrund. We looked for a safe ice bridge to cross for more than 2 hours, but soon realized how much the mountain conditions have changed since the last party had been here in 1998. Moreover, due to the extreme afternoon heat, the snow and ice began to melt fast and soon avalanches were roaring down the face every 10 minutes. After a quick risk assessment of the dangerous situation we were in, we decided to abseil into the bergschrund and wait until the evening when temperatures would drop and the melted snow would freeze again. For more than 7 hours we stayed in an ice cave, bivouacked on a dubiously safe platform deep into the ice. Sometimes, small avalanches penetrated through the small cracks above us, giving us serious goose bumps. Cold, tired and hungry, we melted snow and cooked our freeze-dried Bolognese pasta with an improvised paper spoon. After sunset, we climbed out of the crevasse and scanned the bergschrund again for a safe spot to cross. Unfortunately, the unstable ice bridges, the brittle and overhanging ice and icicles, our fatigue and the approaching bad weather together forced us to abandon the climb. We abseiled the face, jumping over wide crevasses and zigzagging between seracs, using the snow anchors that we carried with us. After 18 hours we were back in our tent, extremely tired. We estimate the difficulty of our route to be: TD+/ED1 with AI5+ sections, 60-100° inclination, 950m level difference in total, of which we managed to climb around 600m. On August 29 we descended to Llamac through Macrash Punta. We spent the next three days relaxing, eating, socializing and also suffering from food poising in good old Huaraz.
Alpamayo (5947m) via the French Direct Route
(D+/TD, 600m, 65-90°)
Alpamayo was the last mountain we climbed and also the most enjoyable climb of the trip. In order to approach the mountain, we took a collective (a minibus) from Huaraz to Caraz and then a taxi to Cashapampa. Without porters or donkeys and with two heavy packs, we trekked the Santa Cruz Valley all the way from Cashapampa (2900m) to the col between Quitaraju and Alpamayo at 5500m. We set camp below Alpamayo at around 5350m. The next day, we climbed the French Direct Route (D+/TD, 60-90°, 600m), starting at the very bottom of the bergschrund. Climbing the steep ice fluting was the best mountaineering experience of my life. The good quality ice was a celebration for our ice tools. The view below and around us kept us motivated to climb in the cleanest style possible. Both of us enjoyed every aspect of this climb to such an extent that we actually allocated more time to film and photograph every pitch of the 600m long route. We reached the summit shortly after noon in high spirits. The view was outstanding. All you could see were highly glaciated peaks such as Artesonraju, Huandoy and Huascaran to the south east and Santa Cruz group to the west. We felt truly lucky and grateful to have the mountain to ourselves as no one else was there. Happy and pleased we shook hands on the most beautiful mountain in Peru. We abseiled down the route, using threads already placed in the ice. While we descended the ice face, my partner received an ice boulder the size of a handball straight into his face. Fortunately, no major injuries occurred, except a bloodied nose. While we relaxed in our yellow tent after the successful ascent, we saw a massive hanging serac roaring down the French route and obliterating our tracks below. It seems that today, with our rapidly changing climate, even the most secure Andean climbing routes are now questionable.