Tuesday, October 30, 2012

2012, 13th – 23rd October: La Paz & Environs, Bolivia

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following link to the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

My time in La Paz and its environs was an opportunity to spend some time with that someone special from Medellín and explore the area with her, using La Paz as a base.

La Paz – The City

I was not taken with La Paz. It is a chaotic mix of steep and dirty streets and terrible traffic fumes. Passages of vehicles and pedestrians are constantly slowed by the innumerable stalls set up in the inside lanes of the streets. Streets are poorly lit at night (giving the place a grungy feel) and there is little to say about the place architecturally. Hence, we got out to the countryside as much as possible which is where the charms lie. The three excursions we made were a day on ´La Carratera de la Muerte´ (´The Death Road´), a two day trip to the Sajama National Park and a three day trip to Lake Titicaca (including Copacabana and Isla del Sol).

View of the Steep Sides of La Paz From Hotel Window

´La Carratera de la Muerte´ (´The Death Road´)

Until around six years ago, there was only one route from Yolosa and Coroico to La Paz along a precarious gravel mountain road. For the vast majority of this crash barrier-free route, one´s options for manoeuvring were limited by the wall of the cliff on one side and the drop of the cliff on the other. Those descending had the roughest deal as the obligation was that those travelling downhill were to take the outside (drop side) lane. With the extent of the road being frequently little more than the width of a vehicle, passing oncoming traffic would have been a death-defying challenge – even at the wider passing points. Often drivers did not do a particularly good job of the death-defying bit and they (and any passengers) met their maker at the bottom of the cliff. In fact, it is reported that the road used to be responsible for several hundred deaths a year. With such statistics, the ´death road´ name was apt in the days it was the principal vehicular route.

´La Carratera de la Muerte´ Tracking down the Valley

The following web page gives a very good personal account of the harrowing history of the road when it was used extensively by vehicles:

Around six years ago the crazy road was replaced by a modern alternative in the next valley; and now the death road is predominantly a tourist´s playground. We joined one of the numerous agencies offering an exciting day to descend a total of 3,500 metres / 11,483 feet in altitude (from 4,700 to 1,200 metres) along a distance of 63 km (39 miles). With such an incredible height change, one feels like one visits two countries in four hours as the change in temperature is remarkable. Since it is all downhill, one can ride 63 km virtually without pedalling, so even circumferentially challenged people could enjoy the day.

The Precarious Death Road
Since a man on a bike is not very wide and pretty much everyone on the road these days are tourists travelling in the same direction, the death road tag is now predominantly tourist industry hype as, in my opinion, there is no great risk. Reportedly some cyclists do project themselves towards the valley floor, but I suspect that they might have forgotten that excessively fast cornering, gravel and a cliff edge are a bad mix. As long as you do not go at too crazy a speed, it is all relatively gentile.

Sajama National Park

As my last blog entry on Arequipa, Perú attests, I am a fan of the intoxicating blend of landscape, light and colours of the altiplano (high plain). One volcano-scattered part accessible from La Paz via a two day trip is the Sajama National Park. It is named after Volcán Sajama (the highest peak in Bolivia) and lies next to the frontier with Chile.

Upon leaving the centre of La Paz which lies in the valley floor at around 3,600 metres (11,811 feet), one climbs to El Plano at around 4,000 metres (13,123 feet). From there, the journey across the altiplano is eventful as there are many visual niceties worthy of a photo stop. These include red and yellow rock strata upended by shifts in the earth´s crust as well as vistas with wide planes and vast skies.

Altiplano View En-Route to Sajama

Rock Forms En-Route to Sajama
with Volcán Sajama in the Distance
The Sajama National Park is spectacular and while staying in the remote pueblito (village) of Sajama, the immediate plain is ringed by the snow-topped peaks of Volcánes Sajama, Anallajachi, Pomerape, Parinacota and Acotango, which draw one´s eyes skyward to the azure canvas flecked with sunlight-stratifying clouds. Though the volcanoes are now inactive, the fissures in the earth´s crust are evidenced by the mineral deposits on the surface of the ground and the geysers. In many places the earth is turned white by the natural saltpetre (potassium nitrate) deposits. Near to the pueblito are geysers (no dramatic skyward gushes just bubbling), and thermal baths where one can enjoy a hot open-air bath with views of snow-capped volcanoes.

Volcán Sajama

Volcánes Parinacota & Pomerape

Geyser Near Sajama

Tim Enjoying the Thermal Baths
with Volcán Sajama in the Distance
Near to Sajama village there were plenty of opportunities to see llamas and alpacas, (alpacas are a shorter more-furry cousin of the llama). Alpacas ´son muy bacanas´ (are very cool). We were highly entertained and amused by the way they happily look at you with their fur-ringed faces. They seem to consider you for a moment as if you are vaguely familiar to them, like they know you from some time back, but do not have the time to stop and say hello as there is just so much grass to be eaten.

Alan Alpaca

Alpacas ´Recognizing Us´ with Volcán Sajama in the Distance

Lago Titicaca

Would Lake Titicaca be quite so famous were it not for the rather cool and memorable name – who knows? Straddling the border between Perú and Bolivia, it is certainly large at around 165 km (103 miles) long and 280 metres (919 feet) deep. The town of Copacabana is the main launching pad for exploring the lake on the Bolivian side. For a town centred round tourism, Copacabana is not too bad and is not gratuitously touristy.

Lago Titicaca: En-Route to Isla del Sol
For a more peaceful connection with the lake we travelled the 1½ hours by boat to the south of Isla del Sol (Sun Island). The views from the top of the ridge that runs the length of the island are beautiful. Viewed from above in the bright high altitude sunlight, the blue of the lake is intense and is set wonderfully against the sun-baked earth colours of the island and the nearby mainland. I can appreciate why the island was the birthplace of the Inca Empire as it is an inspiring place.

View from Isla del Sol with the Snow-Capped
Cordillera Oriental of the Andes in the Far Distance

Elevated View from Isla del Sol

Friday, October 19, 2012

2012, 8th – 12th October: Arequipa, Perú

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following link to the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

The City

An unmistakable feature of Arequipa is its volcanic context. From much of the city one can see the peaks of (volcanoes) Volcánes Chachani and El Misti - the latter having the classic cone shaped form. Furthermore, many of the buildings, particularly in the historic centre, are constructed in the volcanic stone, sillar. Sillar has a creamy pale grey colour with numerous voids – evidence of the explosive nature of its creation. The sillar stone is responsible for much of the architectural charm of the city. In case any inhabitants of the city forget that those picturesque peaks were created by the transient nature of the earth deep below us, it is rocked by earthquakes at times - sometimes strong enough to do real damage.

Arequipa Catherdral in Plaza del Almas

Unsurprising, the centre point of the city is the Plaza del Armas (pretty much every Peruvian conurbation I have visited has a square / plaza by this name). Notable buildings blessed by the aesthetic charms of sillar are the cathedral, Inglesia de la Compañía, Claustro de la Compañía and Monasterio Santa Catalina. Many, such as Claustro de la Compañía, contain courtyards ringed by beautiful columns with artistic features carved in the sillar. Monasterio Santa Catalina is a walled village within the city. Its hidden streets were built to give nuns a very quiet and contemplative life completely isolated from the outside world. The majority of the site is now open to the public, though walking around it does become rather repetitive as most of it is comprised of many individual nun´s dwellings which are all very similar.

Reflections in a Cafe Window with
Inglesia de la Compañía Outside

Arequipa Catherdral in Plaza del Almas

Claustro de la Compañía
Sillar Columns in Claustro de la Compañía

Laguna de Salinas

Laguna de Salinas is a salt flat / lake located at an elevation of 4,250 metres (13,943 feet) - nearly 2,000 metres higher than Arequipa. It is reached via a long winding unpaved mountain road that interestingly used to be the principal route between the cities of Arequipa and Puno – fortunately a few days later I could make this journey via the modern paved alternative!

I was given a tour by a very friendly local guide, Julio. The laguna is flanked by Volcánes Misti and Pichu Pichu, which together with the intense blue skies and clear light at such altitudes provide a spectacular setting. Normally at the end of the dry season, the water at Laguna de Salinas has evaporated. However, the rains were heavier than usual during the last wet season, so while I was there the salt was only visible at the edges. However, the presence of water meant that there were many flamingos feeding in the shallow lake.

The Amazing Colours of the Altiplano
at Laguna de Salinas

Volcán Pichu Pichu from Laguna de Salinas

This was my first taste of the nature of the altiplano (high plain) that lies on the spine of the Andes from southern Perú down through Bolivia and into the north of Chile and Argentina. The environment at Laguna de Salinas provided the slightly other worldly feeling that I was hoping to experience. The winds and challenging environment at such altitudes mean that there is no vegetation other than grasses and scrub like plants; as such it has a desolate air, however, there is much beauty in this wilderness. The intensity of the blue cast by a sky, which has a greater purity being that bit closer to the heavens, unifies the tones of the wide colour palette – from the earthy reds, browns and greys of the volcanoes on the horizon, to the green-grey water of the laguna and its dusty white borders of salt.

The Salt-Laden Earth at the Edge of Laguna de Salinas

Flamingos Feeding in Laguna de Salinas

Onwards to La Paz, Bolivia

After over two months in Perú, of which one month was dedicated to all those mountain ascents in the Cordillera Blanca, it was about time I headed to my next country, Bolivia. The first leg of this journey involved the bus climbing up from Arequipa past volcanoes to the altiplano. The views were splendid with azure skies above earthy yellow grasslands spreading to views of Volcán Misti in the distance.

After a quick pit-stop in Puno I changed buses to cross the frontier to Copocabana which is the first Bolivian town across the border (it is on the shores of Lago Titicaca). The third bus of my journey then set off to La Paz. Part way through this route it is necessary to cross a thin section of Lago Titicaca. We were told to get off and make this crossing separate from the bus in small wooden boats. The reason for our crossing being on a different vessel to the bus became clear. The bus was transported on a barge that was so low it looked like the bus was being floated across on a couple of planks. That all looked rather top-heavy – hence a good idea for the passengers to be on a vessel with a higher centre of gravity (I wonder if there are any buses at the bottom of the lake).

2012, 25th September – 7th October: Cusco, Perú

Cusco and environs is awash with archaeological sites and ruins, predominantly from the years of the Inca civilisation – the most famous of these being Machu Picchu.

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following link to the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

The City

To see that Cusco was originally an Inca city (their capital in fact); you must look down rather than up. This is because in an attempt to say ´our way is best´ the Spanish conquerors planted their buildings on top of the walls of the Inca ones. The Inca sections are clear to see at the base of many buildings thanks to their mastery of construction in stone.

An example of the architectural imposition of colonial presence is at the Inca site, Qorikancha. Here one can see the Inca walls sitting beneath the Spanish Iglesia de Santo Domingo. The Inca stonework is incredible, with the large pieces fitted together with millimetre precision and without mortar.

Inca Master Stonework at Qorikancha - No Mortar Required

 At Qorikancha, the stones were cut and formed to be generally square or rectangular in shape, leading to the straight horizontal and vertical lines that one is used to seeing in walls. However, in the street Hatunrumiyo, things are somewhat more artistic. Here a colonial building sits on top of the original walls of an Inca palace. The stone boundaries and joins of the Inca construction are all based upon the idiosyncrasies of the stones´ original shapes. As a result, the walls look like a giant and intricate jigsaw puzzle with the mating stones cut to follow each other´s irregular edges. There are few pieces with four edges, in fact the most famous stone has twelve sides – each perfectly mated with the adjoining ones. With the strength afforded by such interlocking construction and the inward inclination of the walls, they were far superior in resilience to the earthquakes that have struck the city over the centuries when compared to the later colonial buildings.

An Inca Jigsaw Puzzle in Stone: Wall in Calle Hatunrumiyo

The Twelve-Sided Stone in Calle Hatunrumiyo

Alleyway in Cusco

Sites Around the City

In the countryside and small towns near to Cusco there are many archaeological sites worthy of a visit – a number of these are situated in ´The Sacred Valley´, which includes Machu Picchu. The organized and scientific approach to agricultural development adopted by the Incas means that terracing abounds across the sites.

At Moray, the Incas built an amphitheatre shaped system of terraces 150 metres deep. The resulting variation in temperature across the elevation of terraces allowed them to develop a greater understanding of the conditions ideal for various crop species. At nearby Salinas de Maras they made use of a natural phenomenon to collect salt. An aquifer exits from a hill where there is a large underground salt deposit. The salt-laden water is directed to successive terracing where it is dried in the sun. The salt is still collected today, and 80% of the terracing in use is that put in place by the Incas.

Inca Terracing for Crop Experimentation at Moray

Salt Terraces at Salinas de Maras

At Pisaq there is a substantial amount of terracing for crops and the ruins of a small settlement as well as some tombs cut into the mountainside. At Ollantaytambo, above the small Inca town is evidence of their reverence to the sun, with alignment of features in their stone constructions to summer and winter solstices. Stone features also include references to the three planes of their spiritual belief – the earth below us, the plane on which we exist and the heavens above us. The huge stones were transported from a quarry on a neighbouring mountain - I do not think that the Inca Empire was built without forced labour.

Crop Terracing at Pisaq


Machu Picchu

In terms of tourist-draw, Machu Picchu is an absolute icon; goodness knows how many millions of dollars it brings into Perú. I visited it with Julia a Russian woman who was in the same home stay as me in Cusco. To afford a very early arrival at Machu Picchu we stayed the night before at the small town of Aguas Calientes – a place that more or less exists for the hordes visiting the ruins. The only reliable way in or out of Aguas Calientes is to take the, very highly priced, but fun train from Ollantaytambo.

Early Morning View of Machu Picchu Ruins
with Huayna Picchu Peak Behind

While in the ruins of the ´city´ of Machu Picchu, there are a number of interesting features to seek out – most notably on the raised section where there is the temple of the three windows and a rock carved to allow observations of the passing of key points in the year (such as the equinoxes). The three windows in the temple are aligned to present three shafts of sunlight at the summer solstice. The nearby carved rock (Intihuatana) has four carved protrusions that align with the four points of the compass, while a vertical section at the top has a face cut at an angle that reportedly corresponds to the tilt of the earth´s rotational axis. Another rock has been carved to create a model of the mountain peaks the other side of the valley.

Temple of the Three Windows

For me, the greatest charm of Machu Picchu is not in the ruins themselves, but in the setting. The topography of the site is incredible. The ridge descends from Machu Picchu Mountain to the plateau which tops the steep sided ridge on which the ´city´ was built. Behind this is the view for which Machu Picchu is most famous, the egg / gherkin shaped mountain of Huayna Picchu (pronounced ´Waenapicchu´) and its smaller sister peak. With the steep sided valleys on either side and Huayna Picchu behind it, Machu Picchu´s setting is both majestic and beautiful. For this reason, my most enjoyable moments were spent at points above the ´city´ where I could look down to the ruins and see view them in their natural context.

Route to the Summit of
Huayna Picchu - Through a Small Cave

The Ruins Set in Their Spectacular Mountain
Setting - As Seen From Summit of Huayna Picchu

The importance of Huayna Picchu in creating the classic views of Machu Picchu was clear when I climbed to the summits of this mountain and its sister peak. When looking down to the ruins without the view of Huayna Picchu included in the vista (because you are standing on it), Machu Picchu just looks like ruins in a beautiful mountain setting. However, when one enjoys the vista from the other side of the ´city´ so it includes Huayna Picchu behind, the view is simply captivating and inspiring – a masterful and synergistic fusion of ancient architecture and natural beauty.

One of the Calssic Views of Machu Picchu
with Huayna Picchu Behind

2012, 11th – 24th September: Lima, Iquitos, Tamshiyacu - Perú

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following link to the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

A visit to Iquitos was a chance for me to ´dip my toes´ in Rio Amazonas, feel the jungle heat and connect with some locals. Since Iquitos is the world´s largest city which is unconnected to others by road, the only ways in or out are by boat or plane – the latter taking an inordinate amount of time. That meant that a journey via Lima was necessary in order to connect with a flight, which gave me a chance to spend some time in the capital. I enjoyed my time in Lima, Iquitos and Tamshiyacu in the company of my Brazilian friend, Sergio.


During the bus journey from Huaraz to the coast, the road descends 3,000 metres (9,842 feet), passing from the grasslands of the high planes, through barren rocky terrain with cacti to reach the dusty coastline – crossing a variety of landscapes and temperature in a matter of hours. The climate in Lima is cool and often hazy / misty because of the cooling effect of the cold ocean currents from the south of the continent.

The affluent Lima district of Miraflores was a nice enough place to relax after a lot of time in the much higher altitudes of Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca. However, passing some days wandering around Miraflores and the old centre of the city was relatively uneventful since the city is not blessed with that many attractions to keep a tourist occupied for long.

In Perú, and particularly its coastal towns such as Lima, there are plenty of opportunities to sample one of the national dishes, cerviche. This contains raw fish (and sometimes shellfish too) marinated in lemon juice and onion. Often the plate also contains some sweet potato. It is very tasty, though I think it would be better if the lemon marinate was drained off before serving, as when it is swimming in this it can be overly acidic.

Cerviche - One of Perú´s National Dishes


Iquitos; what a different place to those in Perú I had previously visited – a hot and sticky jungle environment rather than a mountain or coastal one. Iquitos has the chaotic feel that one associates with hot cities – people hustling and mototaxis (like motorised rickshaws) everywhere. In fact, it seems that in whichever direction you turn there is at least one (and often three or four) mototaxis speeding in your direction, which becomes an irritation after a few days.

Two of the Mototaxis Ubiquitous in Iquitos
(View Through the (Inevitably) Cracked Windscreen of that Decrepit Bus)

In Iquitos there are plenty of opportunities to savour food from the local rivers – particularly if one goes to markets like the one at Puerto Nanay on the Rio Nanay, which Sergio and I visited. There are many types of fish on the barbeques as well as Lagarto (alligator / caiman) which is delicious. Despite Sergio´s offer of a cash reward, I was not brave enough to try to eat the huge maggots / larvae that are crawling around alive in boxes, before being skewered alive and cooked on the barbeque. We made the journey from Puerto Nanay back to the city centre in the most decrepit bus I have ever been on.

Sergio Enjoying Lagarto

Boats in Puerto Nanay Near to Iquitos


There are many agencies offering jungle tours where one stays in a ´jungle lodge´, with the trip including a chance to meet some ´tribal people´ - the ones who wear traditional dress for the tourists, then when that is done pop around the corner to put their jeans and t-shirt back on and call their friend on their mobile phone. Sergio and I were wise to this and were also aware that the only way to meet traditional jungle communities would be to have special contacts and spend days or weeks travelling by boat and on foot to very remote regions of the jungle. So we sought a community smaller than Iquitos which while ´modern´ is in fact a truer representation of how most people live in the Amazonas in the 21st century. We chose the small town of Tamshiyacu.

Tim Waiting by the Boat Colectivo to Tamshiyacu

We travelled by boat colectivo from Iquitos about 1 ½ hours up river to Tamshiyacu which is on the banks of Rio Amazonas, where seemingly every evening one can see a spectacular sunset view across the river. Away from the one or two blocks surrounding the town square (in ´suburban Tamshiyacu´), the housing is very basic – just an (often insecure looking) wooden frame with planks nailed to it to create walls. I´m not sure that the housing standard is always due to lack of funds as there may be a strong dose of the South American ´that´s good enough´ philosophy present. Evidence of this is the strange sight of a tumbledown wooden house with a satellite dish on one of the walls, or the noise of a substantial sound system inside (maybe costing the same as the wood to build the house).

One of the Glorious Sunsets Across Rio Amazonas at Tamshiyacu

Housing in ´Suburban´ Tamshiyacu

The days in Tamshiyacu are long and slow. It seems like the heat and humidity even find their way into your watch, with the soupy air retarding the progression of the hands of the timepiece. Hours are passed drinking a lot of water and snoozing. It is not uncommon to enter a shop to find that the owner has nodded off. When the rain comes, it does so in dramatic fashion with drops like pellets.

Friday, October 5, 2012

2012, 29th August - 10th September: Huaraz, Peru - Mount Huascarán Norte

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following link to the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

Since reading about Huascarán near to the beginning of my South American travels a year ago, Peru´s highest peak had been a simmering ambition of mine, with the fact that the south and north summits are the fourth and fifth highest peaks on the American continent adding to the romance. Indeed when I climbed Pan de Azucar in Colombia (5,100 metres) and Chimborazo in Ecuador (6,310 metres), some of the intent was to test myself out at increasingly higher altitudes; all the time wondering whether I might get to the summit of Huascarán in Peru.

Volcán Chimborazo in Ecuador was a good test and the fact that I managed Mount Chopicalqui in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru with less physical problems (more-or-less the same height as Chimborazo but with more physically demanding sections), was reassuring – so there was nothing left to do but to go for it. I considered that if I left Huaraz without an attempt on Huascarán I would feel like I was leaving with unfinished business.

Huascarán has two summits – north and south with heights of 6,664 metres (21,863 feet) and 6,678 metres (22,204 feet) respectively. At this late stage in the normal Cordillera Blanca climbing season, the south summit can be more difficult to reach because the normal ´easy´ route can be made too dangerous by avalanche and crevasse risk. So while a timetable was developed with my guide that included a allowance for an attempt on the south summit, the possibility of reaching the slightly higher of the two peaks was to remain unknown until conditions on the mountain could be reviewed. Indeed, it was for this reason that an assistant guide joined the team I used for the Yanapaqcha / Chopucalqui expedition so that the guide and assistant guide could check conditions on Huascarán Sur while I rested at the high camp.

Huascarán really is a big mountain. The amount of height gain required is compounded by the fact that the nearest point accessible by road is the village of Musho which has an elevation of ´only´ around 3,000 metres. This means that you have to climb a further 3.6 kilometres (2.25 miles) vertically upwards to the summit, which makes the overall schedule longer. Just by viewing the mountain from the start point in Musho, it is difficult to appreciate how big it is.

I made the Huascarán ascent with the same team as that for Yanapaqcha and Chopicalqui - the guide Victor, the porter and cook Edgar, except that we were joined by an assistant guide, Renso. The ascent of Huascarán Norte was made across six days (2nd – 7th September).

Day 1: Musho to Camp at Base of Moraine

Upon arriving in Musho, we found that our muleteer had a hangover and could not be bothered to get up. We therefore had to wait 1½ hours until someone else was found. It was a treat to have mules taking the load of the heavy packs through the wooded terrain up to the camp at the lower edge of the moraine where we spent the first night at 4,150 metres (13,615 feet).

Leaving Musho with the Vast Huascarán in the Distance

Unloading the Mules at the Camp at the Base of the Moraine

Day 2: To Upper Moraine Camp

The second night was spent at the upper edge of the moraine at approximately 4,900 metres (16,076 feet). Reaching there involved traversing some of the vast water-smoothed rock faces of the lower moraine. We continued past the refuge at base camp to reach the top of the moraine, where that evening I enjoyed another beautiful sunset which shone wonderful yellow hues onto the vast west faces of Huascarán Sur and Huascarán Norte high above us.

In the Evening Sun at Moraine Camp - Looking Across
the Glacier to Huascarán Norte

At the Moraine Camp: The Sun Sets Behind the Cordillera Negra with
the Lower Reaches of the Huascarán Glacier in the Foreground

Day 3: From Moraine to High Camp Near The Shield

Most commonly, a summit day for either of the north or south summits is made from ´Camp 2´ which is located just below the centre of the col between the two peaks at a height of around 6,000 metres (19,685 feet). However, we used a different high camp point which would allow a potential attempt on the south summit via a feature on the west face of the mountain called ´The Shield´ (´El Escudo´). Some of my photos will make the reason for the name ´The Shield´ clear; the smooth ice that sits atop the huge shield shaped rock feature frequently shines brightly in the sunlight – making its shape clear to see even from far away.

Tim, Renso & Victor Rest on the Huascarán Glacier
with La Garganta & Huascarán Norte Behind

Renso & Edgar Climbing the Upper Reaches of the Huascarán Glacier
The Sun Reflecting off the Ice on ´The Shield´ Making this Feature
on the Western Face of Huascarán Sur Clearly Visible

The most dangerous section of the normal routes to the north and south summits is the avalanche and serac fall prone large expanse of mountain that sits below and to the south of ´La Garganta´ (The Throat) which is just below the col between the two peaks – note; seracs are large, often pointed, blocks of ice that can break off glaciers and fall without warning. For this reason you will find that I have taken no pictures in this region of the mountain as the risk of exposure to potential avalanche and serac fall has to be minimised by getting through this zone as quickly as possible – i.e. there is no time for breaks, even photo stops.

After a gentle climb on the glacier to a height of around 5,400 metres (17,716 feet) we had a break just below the entry point to the avalanche and sera fall risk area. To reach our high camp next to the shield we entered the southern section of the danger zone. I then had to achieve 500 metres (1,640 feet) of height gain very quickly without breaks, which I found tough going at the high altitude. The physical challenge was compounded by the fact that this section of the climb included some short ice walls as well as careful navigation across thin ice bridges spanning wide and deep crevasses. Looking down from the bridges I could see that some of the crevasses were at least 50 metres deep – an imposing view down when it was only the spikes on my crampons and my balance stopping a dramatic tumble. Some of the ice wall climbs were made more difficult by the condition of the ice – it was rock hard and sometimes brittle, causing me to slip at one point. The density of the ice was evidenced by its deep blue colour, and sometimes trying to gain an ice axe hold point just shattered the surface of the ice.

After this ´race´ at altitude I was pretty exhausted and by this point the mist that had marked our entry to this danger zone had turned to snow cloud – reducing visibility significantly and with the falling snow adding to the discomfort. Route finding became more difficult – increasing delays, but at least by then we were above the steeper and more dangerous slopes of the risk zone. The team decided that we were close enough to the desired camp point and given the worsening conditions together with my tiredness, a sufficiently good camp point was located at around 5,900 metres (19,357 feet). This was on a steep slope and ice axes had to be used to carve out two flat(ish) recesses in the snow in which to locate our tents. It was a relief to get into the tent and escape the all-penetrating spherical snowflakes.

After a few hours resting (warming up my feet in my sleeping bag), my tent companion Edgar exclaimed as the clouds finally cleared and we were afforded glimpses of the spectacular views and indeed the spectacular and slightly precarious nature of our camp spot. The area above us and across the slope to the south revealed the edges of the vast geometrical form of the shield, while a glance down the steep slope revealed the glacier far below, the valley further down still and the Cordillera Negra mountain range to the west. It was fair to coin the term ´extreme camping´. For example, the nature of the slope meant that it was prudent to take your ice axe with you when making a toilet visit as were you to slip on the way it would be very difficult to arrest your slide down the slope where glaciers waited to gobble you up. It was sensible to spend as much time as possible inside your tent – the only, albeit very small, section of flat(ish) ground.

A Spectacular Place to Sleep - With Views of
´The Shield´ as well as the Glacier & Valley Below

Sleeping Above the Clouds at 5,900 metres
(19,357 feet) Close to ´The Shield´

That evening Victor presented me with the option of making a summit attempt on North peak that night. This would have involved setting off at 11pm and traversing to La Garganta before making the start of the climb to the north summit. I would have had barely four hours rest before this after being exhausted from the 900 metre (2,953 feet) ascent earlier that day. I felt that my body might not deliver the energy required and I decided to have a full night´s sleep.

Day 4: Rest, Investigation of Route to South Summit &
Preparation for North Summit Ascent

Due to my decision not to attempt the north summit the previous night, Day 4 was a rest day for me – a rest day with truly breathtaking views from our spectacular 5,900 metres (19,357 feet) vantage point. Our proximity to the shield meant that Victor and Renso could make a brief foray up the side of the shield to investigate conditions. They reported back that the ice was very hard and brittle. I knew that with my limited ice climbing experience, it could be a risky proposition for me to ascend a long wall / slope of rock hard and brittle ice followed by a 400 metre long section along a knife-edge ridge (necessitating having one foot either side of a knife-edge of hard ice). I do not think that Victor was overly keen on the thought of taking my full weight on the rope in the event that I fell. My experience of this hard and brittle ice on the short walls the day before suggested that a long climb of such ice would not really be much fun for me and maybe a little too dangerous. Therefore, an attempt on the south summit was ruled out.

The Edge of ´The Shield´ - A Striking Feature

Victor & Renso Climb to the Edge of ´The Shield´
to Investigate the Condition of  the Ice

An Impressive View from the Tent - With the Edge of ´The Shield´,
the Huascarán Glacier Below & the Valley Further Below

Day 5: Ascent of North Summit

This was to be a long night and day as we would have to descend to the Candeletta (an area of the mountain below and a little north of the shield), traverse across the avalanche / serac zone to La Garganta, climb to the north summit, descend to La Garganta and traverse back to Candeletta before descending further and crossing the glacier and part of the moraine to the base camp.

After no real sleep, we got up at 10pm (effectively Day 4), downed a hot drink and took down camp to set off at around 11pm. We walked down some steep slopes and rappelled down some even steeper ones before finding a convenient block of ice in the Candeletta to which we could secure our larger backpacks with an ice screw, and leave them to be collected on our return. We then transferred just the essential gear for the summit climb to two small backpacks to be shared by the team.

From this point onwards we had to maintain a fast pace as we entered the danger zone between Candeletta and La Garganta. At two points in particular during this undulating traverse, the reason for the fast-as-is-reasonably-possible pace was clear. These areas were literally littered with chunks of ice – pieces large and small of seracs that had fallen from above. They varied in magnitude from the size of a chair to that of a truck. Being hit by any one of them would certainly be ´game over´ - so not a place to hang around. Nevertheless, despite the fast pace I was able to marvel at the dream-like mix of black, silver and white as the small ice forms in the immediate foreground through to the towering outlines of Huascarán Sur above us and Huascarán Norte ahead of us were lit by a bright moon and the light of innumerable stars spread across a cloudless night sky. In fact there was so much lunar and stellar light that one barely needed to use a head torch.

As we neared the slopes below La Garganta, the size of the crevasses increased, with a couple of really big ones that required a sure-footed jump across a gap of around 1.5 metres – for which I had my ice axes poised in my hands in case my jump was less than solid. One other crevasse crossing involved another sure-footed walk along a thin ice bridge. After navigating safely through the danger zone to La Garganta, we could pause at around 6,000 metres (19,680 feet) for refreshments and to catch our breaths. We then entered the col between the two mountains, before starting the climb up the southern face of Huscarán Norte.

We soon reached the only ´technical´ challenge of the day – a small ice wall, only around 4 metres high. It sat above a crevasse / bergschund but could be accessed by a small ice bridge. The challenge with this ice wall was not its height, but the fact that it leant out towards you and had protruding / overhanging lines running horizontally along it. When Victor, who has a lot of ice wall experience, made the first climb and started swearing and grunting with the effort I knew that it was going to be a tricky climb for me.

For my first attempt I tried following the same traversing route as Victor, but because I am much taller I had to almost crouch to avoid the overhanging sections above my head. Trying to ´crouch´ while on just crampon toe-points was a pretty ridiculous proposition and I retreated back to the ice bridge. Victor and Renso then shouted down that with the extra reach afforded by my height, I might be able to follow a direct route – straight up from the ice bridge and over the worst part of the overhang (not bothering to avoid the worst of the overhang by traversing). I went for it and by really heaving myself up I was able to get both ice axes into the ice over the lip in the wall. After a pause for deep breaths (amidst encouragement from above), I climbed the sloping ice above and up to the anchor point where Victor and Renso were waiting.

This just left Edgar to climb the wall. Unfortunately, early in his attempt he dropped one of his ice axes down the crevasse. With only one axe it was very difficult for him to climb. Due to this he made many failed attempts over twenty minutes or so. During this time, the three of us who were perched on the steep ice slope above got very cold. When the shivers really set in I said that we must help him by heaving him up on the safety rope. With this assistance he eventually made it.

While in the Col Between Huascarán Sur & Huascarán Norte,
the Sun Rose Behind Mount Chopicalqui in the Mid Distance

Soon after while ascending the south face of Huascarán Norte, the sun rose behind Mount Chopicalqui which was clearly visible through the col between the two Huascarán peaks.  A little later, the golden early morning sun struck the white face of Huascarán Norte above us – changing it to a pale yellow. With the moon in the sky high above it made a beautiful sight. From then on it was a long tiring slog to the summit. During this time, the wind really picked up and in the wind chill at 6,300 metres (20,669 feet) it was extremely cold. In the haste of changing backpacks during the night I had left behind my material to cover my face and the wind chill ´cold burnt´ my nose and in particular my lips which took about three weeks to heal.

Golden Rays on the Southern Face of Huascarán Norte
Just After Sunrise with the Moon Still Present

Later in the Sunrise in the Col with
Mount Chopicalqui in the Mid Distance

When we reached the summit, at 6,664 metres (21,863 feet), I was exhausted but jubilant and said thanks to Pachamama. We stayed on the summit to enjoy the views no longer than twenty minutes because it was so cold in the strong winds which gusted (I estimate) to around 80 mph (129 km/h). The vistas were completely clear in all directions – to Huascarán Sur to the south, Chopicalqui to the east which was nestled in clouds, the Huandoy peaks to the north and the valley and the Cordillera Negra to the west - a truly beautiful and inspiring spectacle.

Tim on the Summit of Huascarán Norte
(6,664 metres / 21,863 feet / 4.14 miles)
(Air pressure around 43% of that at sea level)

View North Westwards from Summit of Huascarán Norte

View Eastwards from Summit of Huascarán Norte
with Chopicalqui Nestled in the Clouds Below

During the descent back down to the col, at times the gusting wind was strong enough to blow one over. During these gusts it was best to stop walking and crouch with ice axe secured in the snow and turn one´s face away from the burning sting of the driven ice and snow. After a snack stop in the col we raced across from La Garganta to Candeletta (through the avalanche and serac fall danger area), jumping across the large crevasses.

Descending Into the Col Between the Huascarán Peaks
With Views of Chopicalqui (Through the Col in the Distance)
& Huascarán Sur (to the Right)

Renso Leads the Descent to the Col & La Garganta

Once we reached the point in the Candeletta where our larger packs were secured, we donned these and headed straight down to the glacier below. This involved some rappelling down the steeper ice slopes and walls. Crossing the glacier took some time as there were numerous crevasses to avoid and we had to pick / find a route through them all. After a seemingly long time in my tired state we reached the moraine, rested, took our snow and ice gear off, then continued down part of the moraine to spend the night at base camp. It was a very long day and night – including the descent from our shield camp (5,900 metres / 19,357 feet) to Candeletta (5,800 metres / 19,029 feet), the traverse to La Garganta and the climb to the col (6,000 metres / 19,685 feet), the climb and descent from the summit (6,664 metres / 21,863 feet), the return to Candelleta, the descent to the glacier, the crossing of the glacier and moraine to the base camp at 4,800 metres (15,748 feet). All in all around 16 hours of walking with no sleep – we slept well at base camp after all that!

Descending from Candeletta to the Huascarán Glacier
Looking Back Up Huascarán Sur to ´The Shield´

Sunset at the Huascarán Base Camp
Looking Across the Valley to the Cordillera Negra

Day 6: Return to Huaraz

In the morning we traversed the remainder of the moraine across its numerous smooth rock planes then continued down to Musho to find transport back to Huaraz. That evening, after days of boring pasta we enjoyed a feast of meat in a restaurant followed by celebratory beers and Piscos.

Tim During the Walk Back to Musho Beneath the
Vast Peaks of Huascarán Norte & Huascarán Sur

Victor, Tim & Renso in Huaraz Celebrating
Their Successful Ascent of Huascarán Norte

After coming to South America with no experience of ice and snow or high altitude, to have built my experience through climbs in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, eventually reaching the north summit of Huascarán, a challenging mountain where the air pressure is only around 43% of that at sea level (my estimate), was a great personal achievement and a fitting finale to my time in the Cordillera Blanca.