Thursday, October 4, 2012

2012, 17th - 28th August: Huaraz, Peru - Mounts Yanapaqcha & Chopicalqui

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

I made the Yanapaqcha and Chopicalqui ascents during a six day expedition (23rd – 28th August) with my guide Victor, his girlfriend Anais And the porter / cook Edgar. The heights of the two mountains are; Mount Yanapaqcha (5460 metres / 17,913 feet) and Mount Chopicalqui (6,354 metres / 20,846 feet).

Day 1: To Yanapaqcha Moraine Camp

The easy walk from the trailhead at the road high up the Llanganuco valley to the Yanapaqcha moraine camp had wonderful views of the Llanganucco lagunas below as well as the Huandoy, Pisco and Chacraraju peaks and the route to Laguna 69.

En-Route to the Yanapaqcha Moraine Camp
With Views of the Llanganuco Lagunas & the Huandoy Peaks to the Right

View Across the Laguna at the Yanapaqcha Moraine Camp
with Mount Chacraraju on the Right

The moraine camp for Yanapaqcha is situated next to a small lake which gives picturesque reflections of Mount Chacraraju in the bright daylight as well as the in the reds and greys of the sky in the setting sun.

Sunset Vista from the Yanapaqcha Moraine Camp

 Day 2: Yanapaqcha Summit & Chopicalqui Base Camp

We set off for Yanapaqcha at around 3am. After a short walk across the remainder of the moraine we reached the edge of the glacier where we donned crampons and roped together. The traverse of the glacier was across relatively gentle slopes without too many notable crevasses to worry about. However, at one point when we were below an ice-covered rock feature we heard the tell-tale crack-crack sound of ice separating. We instantly ran to get away. Fortunately no ice fell on that particular occasion, but the debris and ice chunks / ice boulders at the base of the ice feature showed that at other times it had.

Sunrise View Across Yanapaqcha Glacier
with Huandoy Peaks in the Distance

During the climb we enjoyed the gentle spread of blues, reds and yellows of the sunrise framed by the Huandoy peaks as well as those of Chopicalqui, Huascarán Sur and Huascarán Norte. After some time we reached the base of the ice wall / slope we would have to climb to reach the ridge that would lead us to the summit. Like such features, the access point is where the slope of the ice wall ends and it drops off more steeply to a lower mountain section. The ice and snow piled up on the lower section cracks away from the rock wall forming a thin crevasse / bergschrud. One must cross this to gain access to the bottom of the ice wall. On Yanapaqcha, a small ice bridge affords such access. The guide Victor went first and set up the ropes and anchor points. The slope of the wall was not too severe (around 60 degrees) and it is approximately 80 metres high. With crampons and a short ice axe in each hand, the climb to the ridge was relatively easy.

Victor Leads the Climb of the Ice Wall to Reach
the Yanapaqcha Summit Ridge

Anais & Victor on Ridges Approaching Summit of Yanapaqcha

The outlines and shapes of the rock that form the ridge have, with the help of the prevailing winds, long been encased in ice and snow. The result is a series of sharp lines along ridge edges and bulbous forms with smooth domed tops and icicle-clad undersides. We negotiated these to reach the final steep slope to the summit. There is no plane surface on the summit, only a knife-edge, so we perched ourselves on top of this triangular shape to enjoy the views. The most spectacular of these was towards the three mighty peaks of Chopicalqui, Huascarán Sur and Huascarán Norte, with the prominent rise of these peaks doing justice to their vast size. In true classic summit view form, we were above the clouds in the valleys below. As we descended, these clouds moved in and during the descent of the ice wall we were enveloped in mist. However, we soon had sun again as we walked down the glacier and emerged below the summit-hugging clouds.

Perched with Crampons on the Knife-Edge
Summit of Yanapaqcha
A Stunning Vista from the Knife-Edge Summit of Yanapaqcha
(Peaks in the distance from left to right are: Chopicalqui, Huascarán Sur and Huascarán Norte)

As is so easy to do, during the climb at altitude I had allowed myself to become dehydrated and had not eaten enough which made me feel drowsy by the time we reached the moraine camp. However, after a lot of liquids and food I felt better. During the ascent of Yanapaqcha, I had regulated my pace to prevent my breathing becoming too rapid as I feared that breathing too hard at altitude would make me feel nauseous. For a relatively ´easy´ summit such as Yanapaqcha this was not a problem (my four hours to the summit was normal). However, this slightly reduced pace would be too slow for Chopicalqui – particularly if the weather became changeable (as it was threatening to do). Changeable weather would necessitate getting onto and off the summit within an earlier time limit. My concerns about the challenge of Chopicalqui were compounded by news from Victor that the high camp was not at 5,600 metres as reported in some places, but at 5,300 metres. This meant that the summit day would have a height gain of more than 1,000 metres, which with two ice walls thrown in would be a challenge. An ascent of 1,000 metres on a low-level mountain would barely feel like a physical test at all, but at 6,000 metres altitude I knew that it could be taxing.

I got the impression that Victor thought that I may not make the summit of Chopicalqui, indeed this was confirmed when he offered me the alternative of abandoning Chopicalqui for Mount Pisco. This alternative annoyed me because Pisco is not a challenging peak. While it would present me with nice views, I would not get the buzz and satisfaction of reaching a challenging summit. I told Victor that I would rather try Chopicalqui and fail than to ´cop-out´ and settle for Pisco. After all, one of my intentions of visiting the Cordillera Blanca mountain range was to reach some summits which would push my personal limits of physical and mental endurance. So after some pondering I told Victor that I wanted to stick to the plan to climb Chopicalqui.

There is a crazy road that valiantly crosses the Cordillera Blanca from Yangay to Piscobamba. This road does make access to Yanapaqcha and Chopicalqui that bit easier as you can get transport to take you to around 4,000 metres for the trailhead to Chopicalqui base camp and around 4,400 metres for the trailhead to Yanapaqcha moraine camp. This is unlike Huascarán where you have to start walking at around 3,000 metres (in Musho). Between the Yanapaqcha and Chopicalqui trailheads, this road makes innumerable twists and turns to claw its way up the steep slope. To save our legs and the pain of heavy packs we hitched a lift in the back of a truck down to the Chopicalqui trailhead. The walk to the base camp was short and I had a good night´s sleep at the slightly more soporific altitude of 4,000 metres.

Hitching a Ride in the Back of a Truck Between
the Yanapaqcha & Chopicalqui Trailheads

Day 3: Chopicalqui Moraine Camp

The walk from Chopicalqui base camp (around 4,000 metres) to the moraine camp (around 4,800 metres) gains approximately 800 metres altitude.  It follows the edge of the moraine left by the previous reaches of the Chopicalqui and Huascarán glaciers which at present, end much higher up. In light of the previous day´s conversation about the increased pace required for Chopicalqui summit day, I used this day´s walking to test my body´s reaction to increased respiration. I pushed up my speed and was pleased to find that I could breathe rapidly in the rarefied air for a number of hours without feeling nauseous or bad in other ways.

The moraine camp was a great spot to survey the task at hand (Chopicalqui summit route) as well as to look back down the valley and across to the Huandoy peaks. Sleeping at 5,000 metres (16,400 feet) proved to be a challenge for the first hour as my breathing had a number of strange episodes. On occasion, these were significant enough to make me worry as I had the sensation of not being able to breathe properly. Fortunately after a while, my respiration calmed and I was able to sleep.

Early Morning Frost at the Chopicalqui Moraine Camp

Day 4: Chopicalqui High Camp

Since the climb to Chopicalqui high camp would not be long and the high camp is a much colder place to be, we deferred the climb until later in the day, spending a little longer at the warmer moraine camp.

Having negotiated our way across the boulders of the moraine, the climb up the glacier to the high camp was spectacular in itself, with a few small crevasses to step across to keep one entertained as well as views of the Chopicalqui and Huascarán peaks above us. The Chopicalqui high camp is a spectacular place with a stunning direct view of Huascarán Norte – a vista that looked even more breathtaking in the red hues of the setting sun behind a suspended line of some mid-level clouds.

Climbing the Chopicalqui Moraine

Chopicalqui High Camp - Looking Towards Huascarán Norte

Sunset at Chopicalqui High Camp

Day 5: Chopicalqui Summit

The night time view from the high camp was stunning, with the smooth sweeps of ice and snow shining in the silvery moonlight and swathes of stars spread above the arena created by the slopes of Huascarán Sur and Chopicalqui above us.

Victor, Edgar and I (Anais was too ill) started our ascent at around 1am and set a good pace – overtaking another group and becoming that day´s lead group by a healthy margin. After slogging our way up many snow-clad slopes we reached the first ice wall after around two hours. This ice wall, at an elevation of around 5,600 to 5,700 metres is approximately 100 metres high with a slope of around 65 degrees. Neither the access to the wall or the slope itself was overly arduous and its ascent was just a matter of physical endurance in the rarefied air. After this it was more slogging up continuing slopes to reach the base of the second ice wall. Just before this the sun broke the horizon, gently and subtly lighting the broad sweep of vistas from our prominent position.

Sunrise During Ascent of Chopicalqui

The second ice wall was more challenging. While it was shorter at around 80 metres high it was steeper at approximately 75 degrees, but more critically, it was more difficult to access. It had a crevasse / bergschrud at its base followed by a vertical section four to five metres high. With my very limited ice climbing experience this was a challenge for me. On my first attempt my arms ran out of strength and I retreated to the ice bridge. On my second go I actual fell. I was ably caught on the rope by Victor, but within the reaction time I fell around five metres for a nice head-first dip into the crevasse.  By now the strength had been sapped out of me – in particular from my arms.

Victor Leads Climb of Second Ice Wall During Ascent of Chopicalqui

During this time the two other groups on the mountain had caught up with us and there was a queue for the ice wall. Victor seeing the queue and no doubt feeling the cold perched at the anchor point high above shouted down something to the effect of “it´s now or never”. It proved third time lucky for me as I successfully managed to get past the tricky initial vertical section and continue up the 75 degree slope. The onward climb in the rarefied air was extremely taxing on my body – I do not think that I have ever breathed so hard in my life. After the ice wall there was a further slope of around 50 degrees or so up to the ridge. In my exhaustion, it seemed like I almost, metaphorically speaking, crawled up this.

Victor Leads the Final Stages of the Climb
to the Summit of Chopicalqui

The Ice-Clad Summit of Chopicalqui
(Photo Courtesy of Mountain Guide Victor Rimac Trejo)

Once on the ridge and having rested to get my senses back to normal, I looked to the left to the spectacular remaining climb to the summit. The summit of Chopicalqui is another ice-clad sculpture – having domed and rounded features created from innumerable years of deposition of snow and ice by the high winds. The truly spectacular views from the summit were just reward for the effort – made more personal for our group as we were the first to summit that week and the only people to make it that day (the final ice wall thwarted that day´s other groups).

Above the Clouds on the Summit of Chopicalqui
at 6,354 metres (20,846 feet)

In contrast to the physical challenge they presented during the ascent, the ice walls and steep slopes made for a more gentle aerobic experience on the way down as we could descend them on rappels. Once reaching the more gentle slopes below we walked back to our tents at the high camp. After a rest we broke camp and carried all our gear down to moraine camp where we spent a relaxed evening, night and morning.

Edgar Secures a Rappel During the Descent of Chopicalqui

Day 6: Return to Base Camp & Huaraz

In the morning at moraine camp we could see that the winds on the upper ridges and summit of Chopicalqui were much stronger than the day before. We observed the snow being lifted up in swirling trails to a height of 200 metres or so above the mountain. Later in the morning we were treated to a spectacular sight as the vapour trail of a passing jet plane tracked above the entire width of Chopicalqui – above its ridges and its summit.

A Passing Jet Plane Leaves a Vapour Trail High Above Chopicalqui
(Note the effects of the high winds with the snow being lifted hundreds
of metres into the air above the ridges and summit of the mountain) 

We carried all our gear down to base camp and the mountain road to wait for transport back to Huaraz, where that evening we celebrated our two successful summits with Pisco Sours and a meal.

Edgar (& Family), Tim, Victor & Anais Celebrate
the Successful Ascents of Mounts Yanapaqcha & Chopicalqui

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