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.

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