FC: Chris' Elderly Adventures 2011 Edition Cordillera Blanca, Andes Mountains Peru
1: Chapter One Nevado Alpamayo "The most beautiful mountain in the world...no summit but well worth the effort!"
2: My wonderful wife, Barb, knowing my enjoyment of mountain adventures, gave me a 60th birthday present the summer of 2011--an opportunity to spend some time mountain climbing in Peru in July. I had previously climbed Ishinca and Tocllaraju in the Cordillera Blanca Peru in 2009, and had a great time on those mountains. After returning from this first trip, I was keen to attempt 2 more difficult mountains, Alpamayo and Huascaran, either in 2011 or 2012. I wanted to have some friends along on this adventure, so I dutifully went down my list of climbing/hiking companions, coaxing them to join me by sending beautiful photographs and trip reports of other climbers successfully summiting the high peaks in Peru. My daughter, Hannah and her husband, Rob, have been great climbing companions in previous years, but with an 8-month old baby, Cedar, in the fold, they were not available. Alas, I was unable to coerce anyone to join me. I considered waiting another year, knowing how lonely it can be to climb so far away from home without a familiar face tied in to the climbing rope. But I knew there would be no guarantee that any friends would be available to join me in 2012 and that this summer I was relatively injury free for a change. I also figured that at my age I don't have too many years left as a youngster, so this was the year for the adventure. I arranged an 18-day trip from July 5-23rd, including travel to and from the U.S. The price was quite reasonable and included an experienced mountain guide, a cook, a porter, pack animals to carry the heaviest loads to base camp, and all the food needed for spending many days and nights in the Andes Mountains. I was unaccustomed to the extensive service I received and felt a bit embarrassed by the hot tea delivered to my tent in the early morning each day and the delicious meals available at base camp with soups, entrées, and desserts prepared from scratch.
3: South Face of Alpamayo (19,500') looking from base camp
4: When climbing in Colorado, I'm far more independent, and not having a well-refined palate or the patience to do much cooking in the mountains, I am more accustomed to just eating cold food like nuts, raisins, berries, crackers, etc. But the food was great and I certainly appreciated the knowledge, climbing skills, and the infectious smiles of my Peruvian climbing compadres, Victor, Luis, and Evert. Their genuine desire to see me have an exceptional experience was a good reminder of how important it is to live and work for the good of others. I almost always find my time in the mountains to be an excellent opportunity to recalibrate my life purpose and priorities. I prepared for my time in Peru with plenty of exercise including running, basketball, stair climbing, lifting weights, ice climbing in the winter and climbing snow couloirs on 14ers in the early summer months in the Rockies. My training suffered a minor set back with a broken forearm in a basketball game in April, but by June I was rehabbing my arm and felt confident I could swing an ice ax in July. I began the acclimatization process by climbing the Dead Dog Couloir, a steep snow ascent on Torrey's Peak (14,255") with my son-in-law, Rob on the 4th of July. The next day I said goodbye to Barb at the Denver airport promising to make good decisions and put safety before ego, but I had every intention of accomplishing my goals of summiting both Alpamayo and Nevado Huascaran. I arrived in Lima shortly after midnight in the early morning of July 6th and caught a taxi to the Manhattan Hotel near the airport and slept for a few hours. That same morning I took a taxi to the bus station at 6:30 AM and got my ticket for the 9 hour Cruz Del Sur bus ride to Huaraz. I tried to sleep on the bus, but the road was so tortuous as we moved from sea level to the Andes Mountains, it was difficult to get comfortable when being constantly jostled by hair pin turns. I enjoyed talking with a few other American climbers and trekkers on the bus and spent much of my time looking at the sights on the way to Huaraz.
5: To speed up my acclimatization to high altitude, Rob and I climbed the steep Dead Dog Couloir on Torrey's Peak in Colorado the day before I left for Peru. | Yessica and I hiked to a Lake about 2000' above Huaraz and got a good view of some of the high Andes peaks where I would be spending most of the next two weeks. | I climbed Nevado Tocllaraju the first time I was in Peru in 2009. At just shy of 20,000' in elevation, it is more than a mile higher than any mountains in Colorado. It gave me a taste to return for more climbing. | A view of Huaraz from my Hostel
6: I arrived in Huaraz (elevation about 10,000') in the late afternoon, was met by Yessica from Peru Mountain Explorers, and checked into a hostel. The following day Yessica and I took a leisurely hike to about 12,000' in the morning, with her practicing her English and me my Spanish. That afternoon I met the young man who was to be my guide for the next two weeks, Victor Saenz, a very friendly and accomplished climber. I immediately felt comfortable with Victor, and although his English was better than my Spanish, I knew we would not be able to participate in any deep conversations. After a pre-climb evening meal of Cuy (roasted guinea pig), the next morning Victor and I, along with two incredibly strong young climbers masquerading as cook and porter, Luis and Evert, respectively, began our journey toward Alpamayo. This peak, pictured on an earlier page, is one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. It is 19,500' high, and is remotely located, requiring a long trek of over 20 miles to get to the base camp location. The trek starts in Casha Pampa (about 9,000' elevation), which is also the start of the famous Santa Cruz Trek. We hiked for a number of hours to Llama Coral where we set up our first camp, and the following day hiked to the Alpamayo base camp (14,000' elevation). The following pictures opposite this page are a few of the sights along the way. | This young girl, who was sitting near the trail head of the Santa Cruz Trek heading toward Alpamayo base camp, made me homesick for my grandkids
7: After several days of hiking, we arrived at base camp, set up our tents and settled in for some rest and good food prepared by our cocinar (cook), Luis. The following day after a breakfast of pancakes and strawberry jam, we left base camp in the late morning and hiked up to 16,000' on a combination of a scree-filled trail and a large, steep boulder field. Here we established our third camp in the early evening on the morraine at the base of the glacier. The weather was fine until we started pitching our tent, at which time it started snowing and became quite cold and windy. I found it difficult to sleep with the snow pelting my tent and its sides flapping in the bitter wind | The beautiful valley through which the Santa Cruz Trek winds | Lake Jatuncocha on the Santa Cruz Trail on the way to base camp | We had a burro and a horse to carry much of our heavier gear on the long trek to base camp.
8: After a mostly sleepless night for me, we navigated to the base of the glacier, put on our climbing gear, roped up and began our ascent to establish our high camp at 18,200' on the col between Alpamayo and Quitaraju.The climb to high camp is an adventure in itself, as the glacier is steep and laden with many large and deep crevasses, and massive ice falls. | Snow, wind, and cold as we pitched our tents at the base of the glacier. The weather was less than ideal for sleeping, but this is no surprise--we are in the Andes at 16,000'.
9: These next pictures show parts of the glacier-laden mountain we encountered on our way to high camp. It's the hidden crevasses covered with a thin veneer of snow that pose the greatest danger. I found the steepest, most technical parts of the climb to be the most fun, but as expected, having not been at this altitude for several years, I was breathless as we tackled the steeper pitches near where we were to establish the highest camp. I usually feel fine and fit until about 17,500' and then the altitude whacks me--in the legs, lungs, heart, and mind! Or maybe the fatigue was just a function of my age! | Victor, on the ascent to high camp maneuvering around a deep crevasse. There was a fixed rope in place, but we decided not to trust it.
10: If you look carefully, you can see climbers with their rope near the horizon just left of the rock band on the right | Deep snow made for slow going on the steep slopes toward high camp | Skirting an ice fall.
11: Altitude at high camp | Luis enjoying a brief rest at the base of a massive ice fall | Great climbing partners on a steep pitch just above where we established our high camp at 18,200'.
12: The clouds parted for about 30 minutes in the evening as we established our high camp, which enabled me to see the southwest face of Alpamayo. It is this beautiful wall of snow and ice that is coveted by avid climbers from so many different countries.. Ascending this wall would be the goal of Victor and me the following day | The first view of the southwest face of Alpamayo. In the 1960's it was voted the most beautiful mountain in the world. When I first saw a picture of this peak years ago I wanted to see it first hand and try to climb it.
13: Often, the high camp col is the host to many tents housing climbers from all over the world. However, possibly owing to the bad weather and the tragic death of a young Polish climber who fell only two days earlier on Alpamayo, we arrived at the col to find only two tents, the domiciles of an Ecuadorian climbing team and a Swiss team. I actually knew one of the Ecuadorian climbers having met him when my daughter Hannah, and my friends, Matt and Kris, and I climbed several mountains in Ecuador about 7 years ago. It was fun to reconnect with him and to realize how small is the world of climbers. We quickly pitched our tents, had a hot meal prepared by our cocinar grande, Luis, and prepared for a short night, with the intent of starting our summit bid at 3:00 AM the next morning. | High camp at 18,200' on the col between Alpamayo and Quitaraju | High Camp on the col between Alpamayo and Quitaraju
14: Looking toward Quitaraju from high camp as the weather worsens | The night at high camp proved to be another mostly sleepless episode. My down sleeping bag inserted in my bivvy sack together were rated to withstand sub-zero temperatures, but failed to keep me warm. I resorted to putting my feet in the arms of my down parka inside my bag to keep them warm. Also, there was plenty of wind pounding my tent to provide yet another reminder that my environs at this altitude had no regard for my personal comfort. At 3:30 AM I crawled out of my bag and began the arduous task of putting on additional layers, stuffing my cold, stiff feet into even colder and stiffer climbing boots, slipping into my climbing harness, and securing my crampons on my boots all the while wearing thick gloves that sabotage any dexterity left in cold fingers. As usual, I had to take the gloves off to accomplish the final tasks of knot tying and clipping in my slings and caribeeners. I've never figured out how to accomplish these preparations efficiently and warmly!
15: After roping up, Victor and I left camp to begin our summit bid in the face of extremely poor visibility. The Ecuadorian and Swiss climbers apparently decided the conditions were not favorable and remained in their tents. So Victor and I had the mountain to ourselves, which would have been great under favorable conditions. There is less risk of ice fall, avalanches, etc. when the summit is not being assaulted by a large number of climbers. However, with the poor visibility at this time we would have enjoyed the additional head lamps of other climbing teams. The climb to the Alpamayo wall first required almost a full pitch of steep belayed down-climbing in total darkness, save the thin beam of our headlamps. Having not been on the mountain before, it was a bit unnerving for me not knowing if there were any crevasses prepared to accept me with open arms as I proceeded downward into the black abyss. But I reminded myself that Victor had me on a tight belay and he was convinced that the darkness below held no treacherous surprises. Later, when I climbed back up this icy snow wall upon returning to camp, I determined that it would have been better to rappel down rather than climb down. After slogging through deep snow for a few hours and regaining our lost altitude and more, there was no sign of improved visibility and with the deep snow sapping our strength, our frustrations mounted as we approached the southwest face. We then came across the body of the fallen Polish climber, which had not yet been recovered. Victor and I decided to take a rest and discuss our situation, the weather, and the snow conditions. Despite our broken English and Spanish, we communicated adequately and decided the other climbers had probably made the correct decision to stay at high camp in their tents, so after a brief rest we reluctantly began to retrace our steps back, which had mostly disappeared due to the continuing falling snow and wind. I experienced conflicting emotions, being simultaneously disappointed and relieved. I was frustrated that I would not get the chance to attempt the French Direct route on the steep southwest face, a classic climb that was the major goal of this trip, but also happy that I could return to the more favorable and safe environs of my tent. I will never know if I would have had the stamina and skills to scale the classic icy face Alpamayo. Maybe I'll have an opportunity for another attempt in the future, with a more flexible time window to accommodate unfavorable weather conditions.
16: After returning to high camp, we decided the poor weather and snow conditions were not likely to change within the next 24 hours, so after a breakfast of hot tea and granola, we broke camp and began our decent to base camp. The climb down included three 200' rappels using fixed snow stakes as anchors--quite a bit faster and more fun going down than up! Funny how the altitude seems so much less severe when one is working with, rather than against gravity! Our return to base camp was uneventful, but we found the camp swarming with Peruvian climbing police who were heading up to recover the body of the fallen climber. While I love the adventure of climbing, this experience was quite sobering and reminded me again that climbing these kinds of mountains is not without risk. I found myself in an acute state of loneliness, missing Barb and the rest of my family. I actually considered foregoing an attempt to summit Huascaran, the second mountaineering goal on this trip, in favor of a less challenging peak. I was both mentally and physically spent, and I knew my family was worried for me. However, after returning to Huaraz a few days later, I recovered well with a good night's rest. Also, with some encouragement from Victor, the knowledge that another American climber, Douglas would be joining our group for our attempt on Huascaran, and reading portions of the Apostle Paul's epistles, my zest for climbing returned in full force. | Return to high camp after our failed summit bid due to poor visibility (and my promise to Barb that safety would be a higher priority than summiting).
17: Rappelling down from high camp. This looks fairly flat in the picture but was actually quite steep and something I would not want to down climb. | While back at base camp, I met two climbers from Boulder who were heading up to attempt Alpamayo. It was fun connecting with some fellow Coloradoans. I later learned that they were disappointed to not make it higher than the morraine camp due to altitude sickness. I feel fortunate to have at least been able to view the classic SW face of the peak. The following day after returning to our Alpamayo base camp, because the burros would not arrive for the trek back to Casha Pampa for another day, Victor and I hiked a good portion of the Santa Cruz Trek to Punta Union (the highest elevation on the trek at 15,500'). On the trek I met many hikers from Europe, Australia, Asia, and South America. This is one of the most awe-inspiring treks in the world, with numerous 20,000' glacier-covered peaks to be viewed. On the following pages are a few pictures from the trek.
18: Recognize this picture above? The name of this mountain is Artesonraju (19,700'), which is the graphic symbol for Paramount Studios | Tallaraju hiding behind the clouds.
19: My last view of the south face of Alpamayo as we leave base camp. Good weather returns. Poor timing for me.
20: The next day, after the burros arrived, we left at sun-up to hike the 20+ miles from the Alpamayo basecamp to Casha Pampa and headed back to a Huaraz for a day of rest and a lecture at the University.
21: Chapter Two Nevado Huascaran | "...another failed summit bid, but a great experience nonetheless.'
22: After coming down from Alpamayo and resting for a day in Huaraz, Douglas, Victor, Luis, Everett, Maricio, and I packed up our gear and headed out for Huascaran, the highest mountain in Peru at 22,205'. Our goal was to summit the south peak (Huascaran Sur) starting from the trailhead at Musho (about 9,500' in elevation) and establishing a base camp at 13,800, a moraine camp at about 16,000', and a high camp at 19,500'. I was happy to be with the same set of climbers from Alpamayo and to also have Douglas and Maricio with our group. Douglas, an American living in Peru, is an exceptional person, with many years of special forces military service, extremely fit, and an avid adventurer as evidenced by his passion for para-sailing off mountain tops. Having another English speaker in the group added substantially to my socializing.
23: Nevado Huascaran is the fourth highest mountain in the western hemisphere. It has a tragic history. On May 31, 1970, an earthquake caused a portion of the mountain to collapse resulting in a massive avalanche of ice, rock, and mud that buried the towns of Yungay and Ranrahirca in the valley below, killing an estimated 75,000 people. It was rarely climbed the last several years because of continued avalanche danger and the large crevasses that blocked access to the summit. I was not originally planning to climb Huascaran until I learned that a route had been established just weeks before I arrived. Good timing for me.
24: The first day was a trail hike from Musho through foliage from a wide variety of botanical families, with our base camp established at the foot of massive rock slabs and ledges, scarred and smoothed by many years of glacier coverage and movement, but now sans any sign of snow and ice. There were only a small number of tents at the base camp, so we had our choice of spots to set up camp. After a great meal and restful sleep, we packed our gear and food for at least 5 days and set off to establish our next camp, about 500 vertical feet above where the glacier began. After pitching our tents, it began to snow heavily, and we knew the next part of the climb would be much tougher because of the deeper snow. Still our spirits were high and Douglas and I were excited for what lay ahead. | Base Camp
25: Douglas and Victor begin the ascent from base camp toward the glacier. | The notorious rock slabs above base camp.
26: Rock slabs meet glacier, where we put on our crampons and prepared for snow and ice from here to the summit, 7000 vertical feet away. | Luis and Evert start their ascent on the glacier, avoiding the first of many crevasses. | A brief rest on the ascent
27: Victor and I moving up in deep snow. | It was too cold to wear my Colorado State University cap, but I wanted it along for the experience | Luis preparing some food at our camp. | Our camp at 16,000'. This is not the kind of weather we were hoping for!
28: After a recurring theme of only a little sleep, we packed up camp in the dark in the early morning before dawn, suffered yet again with the difficulties in putting on our climbing gear in frigid temperatures, roped up, and took off to establish our high camp at 19,500' on the col between Huascaran Sur and Norte. The climb involved navigating around crevasses, crossing some crevasses on narrow snow bridges, and jumping a few others. We also encountered some 75 degree angled snow walls that we found both challenging and fun. The Garganta between the two Huascaran peaks is an area of frequent avalanches, so we moved through this section as quickly as one can at this altitude. I felt quite good during the ascent until the last 200 vertical feet before high camp, when the altitude made another assault on my physical and mental vigor. One of the most difficult aspects of high altitude mountaineering is setting up camp when one barely has the energy to even talk. Still, with the lure of warming up in a thick down sleeping bag, we all pitched in to establish our camp. | Douglas tackles a near-vertical section on the way to high camp. | Can someone take up the slack in the rope in case I fall over backwards?!
29: Victor was a great lead climber. Despite our language barrier, we became good friends and I will stay in touch with him for many years to come. | The Garganta, at about 19,000' is an area of frequent avalanches through which we moved quickly!
30: Upon arriving in the early afternoon at high camp, we surprisingly found only one other group present on the col. The weather was initially good, but then snow, wind, and bright sunshine took turns battling for supremacy. I found myself extremely exhausted as we pitched our camp, probably a combination of the altitude and only 1-2 hours of sleep the night before. I was out of breath just taking off my crampons and unpacking my sleeping pad and bag. Knowing that we would begin our attempt to summit at midnight, I crawled into my sleeping bag as the sun set about 6:45 that evening, hoping to get at least a few hours of sleep. I monitored my heart rate and my oxygen saturation with a pulse oximeter and found them to be within normal limits given the altitude: resting pulse (84 beats/min compared to 48 beats/min at 5,000' in Fort Collins, and O2 sat at 85% compared to 98% at home). I also monitored Victor's heart rate and oxygen saturation, and found them to be similar to mine. I just wished I had as many red blood cells as he has given his work as a high altitude guide!! | You can't drive your SUV to this campsite!! I am grateful to be blessed with the resources and good health to be able to experience these incredible mountains.
31: Douglas and I at high camp. | The yellow tent belonged to a French climbing team, the only others at high camp.
32: Despite my exhaustion, sleep escaped me and I wondered if I would have enough energy to even crawl out of the tent, put on my climbing boots, crampons, harness, etc. at midnight. Unable to sleep, I read parts of Frances Chen's book, 'Crazy Love' and even watched episodes of the Office and and NCIS on my IPod, all the while dreading having to soon leave the warmth of my sleeping bag (knowing that Huascaran would be colder than Alpamayo, I borrowed a better bag for this part of the trip). At times like this, I sometimes question why I put myself in these situations of bone chilling cold, exhaustion, and difficulty breathing, with risk of avalanches, falls, and high altitude sickness. I don't believe that my reasons for engaging in these activities include stupidity or an unusually large ego. I just like to challenge myself mentally, physically, and spiritually, and these sorts of high altitude experiences help me maintain a more wholesome perspective on life at lower altitudes. After absolutely no sleep, I was up at midnight and in donning all of my necessary clothing, plastic boots, and equipment, I realized that I actually felt quite good under the circumstances and thanked the Lord for some renewed strength. I roped up with Luis and we started off about 12:30 AM with our headlamps the only source of light as we moved up the snow and ice. We climbed ever so cautiously along a narrow crest between two gaping crevasses, with their depths impenetrable by our head lamps. As we climbed higher, I was thrilled to feel stronger than I had even hoped and believed the summit was attainable, although I knew it would take at least 3-5 more hours of strenuous climbing to reach. By this time, Douglas, who was roped with Victor had decided to turn back, so I tied in with Victor to continue upward while Luis and Douglas began their descent together. We climbed However, after several hours of climbing and post-holing in deep snow from the most recent storm, I began to question the safety of our climbing conditions. We were having a difficult time getting traction with our crampons and I was concerned that our ice axes would provide little security in arresting any falls. The snow was too deep and powdery to sink them securely in the underlying ice. Also, I knew full well that getting down would be more risky than our ascent.
33: Moving upward from high camp at night I make a futile attempt to capture the sights. The black in the photo is a deep crevasse, not the black sky. | After reaching approximately 21,000', I decided the conditions were not safe enough to continue. This may have disappointed Victor, but I am sure this disappointed Victor, but I kept thinking about Ed Viestur's quote from his Himalayan experiences, "Getting to the top is optional, but getting down is mandatory". I had promised my family that I would make wise decisions and I also did not want to jeopardize Victor's safety if I were to fall. Although it was a difficult choice, I probably made the correct one in turning back. By then, Victor had switched ropes to be with me, and we were the last ones to turn back. It was quite a surreal experience down climbing the steep slopes in heavy snow, belaying each other in almost total darkness, knowing we were the only ones on Huascaran above high camp. I savored the sense of good fortune in being able to experience this incredible solitude. However, I also admit to having the occasional intrusive thought that the solitude was synonymous with being totally alone and on our own, with no help available should either Victor or I slip. Conflicting emotions are common in mountaineering--mental toughness demands that positive thoughts take center stage!
34: After returning to high camp about 5:00AM, without any photographic evidence of our attempt due to the darkness, Victor and I managed to sleep for an hour or two. We ate a quick breakfast of tea and bread rolls, dismantled our camp, and then our whole group began the descent. We rappelled some and down climbed most of the 6000' to our base camp, arriving in the late afternoon. The pictures below and on the opposite page were taken on our decent. The base camp was buzzing with activity and I had some enjoyable conversations with other climbers, including one from Colorado who works with one of my former graduate students at the Medical School in Denver. Small world! | Some of the crevasses were hundreds of feet deep.
35: I love the Rocky mountains of Colorado, but they pale in comparison to the Andes mountains of the Cordillera Blanca. | This was a fun rappel between two crevasses.
36: Papa and his four sons back at base camp. Evert, Luis (the cocinar), Maricio, and Victor were all half my age, so they started calling me Papa and they became mis cuatro hijos.
37: The following day, the burros were late getting to base camp to help haul our gear down to Musho, so after a breakfast of pancakes and honey, we read, talked, played cards, and enjoyed the bright sunshine and beautiful views of the valleys below. A second failed summit--first Alpamayo and now Huascaran. I was clearly disappointed to fall short of my goals. However, in my older years I am quicker to realize that reaching the top of a peak is often beyond my control, and the experience need not be viewed with regret (although I admit I am still second guessing my decision to turn back on Huascaran). I had the opportunity to be on two mountains that are spectacular in their grandeur, hone my climbing skills, test my stamina and endurance, meet many other climbers, experience the genuine camaraderie and friendship of my climbing partners, deal with emotional extremes--elation, joy, laughter, fear, frustration, and intense loneliness. I readily understand that as much as I feel at home on steep snow-covered mountain slopes, I am much more at home with my family--I experienced a palpable ache to be with Barb, my kids and kids-in-law, and my grandchildren. I couldn't wait to see them again. My time in Peru also gave me the opportunity to experience a limited oxygen supply at 21,000', utter exhaustion, frigid temperatures, loss of appetite, sleepless nights, and a 12-pound weight loss (lots of exercise and loss of appetite at high altitude). On a more positive note, I was able to view the incredible handiwork of God and deepen my understanding of His hold on my life. In conclusion, the entire adventure was what I now call 'miserable fun'! Thanks to Barb and the rest of my family for this life-affirming opportunity. I look forward to the next adventure.