As the shuttle left the Chamonix valley, I couldn´t feel sadness, instead I felt anxious. As the plane lifted off Geneva, I started feeling relief. As I waited to board in Madrid towards Lima, alongside Peruvians, I felt that familiarity come back again. The Peruvian accent in the airport sounded like music. In the bus station, the girl at the food counter started chatting me about my origins, and what I like about Peru. Although exhausted, I chose not to sleep. As the bus approached Huaraz and the white capped mountains started being visible in the distance, I started smiling like a kid again. I left out a big breath, releasing a huge weight I carried in my chest in the previous months. I had finally crossed the ocean, I was finally home again, and that was the best place for me to be.
After 36 hours inside airplanes and buses, I finally arrived in Huaraz. It seemed like ages since I was here last, although I had missed just one season. I got a bit lost on streets I used to know by heart, and my Spanish now had a heavy Spanish accent. But the mess and trash in the streets, the smells around the market, the honking, the mad Peruvian stray dogs, the curiosity of the locals, and specially the welcoming smiles of the amazing friends I have here quickly reminded me why I keep coming back to this annual meeting of badass rogue alpinists and mountain guides. People that thrive anonymously in the most raw type of climbing, year after year, failure after failure, yet ever more so connected to each other, bonds so strong that feel like family.
I decided to come to chill. I had no big expectations, no set plans. I knew I was in the best shape of my life, with the best technique I ever had, with the sharpest skills I could ever wish for. Chamonix gave me that. I knew I could finally get on the hardest routes in the range, yet, I was adamant to be around good partners and good people, and maybe because this time around there were more people seeking to climb with me than the other way around. It was more important to have quality rather than quantity. Either do big stuff or relax and enjoy life. The plan was simple, 4-6 weeks in the big mountains, 2 weeks of rock climbing and then some surfing and cultural sightseeing before heading to Brazil.
Also, having had some bad experiences in Europe with male climbers, and running into another woman heading down to the Blanca, I decided this would be a season for an all-girl rope team to crush in these mountains.
But enough of the romance and let´s get to what really matters, climbing!
FIRST DAYS IN HUARAZ
Ana was one of the respondents to an ad I posted in the Mountain Project forum. I was excited when another woman replied, but things worked out with Ana after a long Skype session and several e-mails. She had been here the year before but had some serious acclimatization and partner issues in Pisco, so I suggested as acclimatization plan to go for Vallunaraju, which was new to both, and finally Pisco, her nemesis, before tackling bigger objectives.
Our flights arrived almost at the same time and we met in the luggage recovery area, then took the same bus to Huaraz. I was exhausted and I guess she was pretty tired too so not much talking, but I could feel that although she was American and my american partners have always been awesome, this one was quite reserved. I figured it was the nervousness of facing a place where something traumatic happened, and let it go.
As I usually do, in my first days in Huaraz, already at 3000 m, I rest as in… walk around town, catch up with friends, start eating like there´s no tomorrow. It was awesome to right away see some friends and start making plans to see the ones that were already in the mountains. My favorite bar, Xtreme, had changed name and atmosphere, Tambo was still Tambo, some stores and restaurants closed, others opened, but overall everything was pretty much the same as usual. The mountains however, were super dry. It was bad for the most commercial routes, but excellent for some routes which are usually plagued with tons of snow or gigantic seracs and cornices.
On our second day we hiked to 3800 m, beginning an off the beaten path circuit near the Yurac Yacu, a community center near the town of Marian, just east of Huaraz. We planned to eat lunch afterwards but eventually got a bit lost and missed the lunch hour. However I got to see up close some parts of the outskirts of Huaraz I usually don´t see. My new partner proved to have a strong personality and even stronger opinions, so I figured the coming weeks would be quite interesting with lots of intellectual stimulation and good quality debating, which is different from the usual silliness and nonsensical conversation of my usual partners.
On the third day I went for the millionth time to Laguna Churup. We made the small hike in about 1h15 which was a new record for me even though I was still feeling quite tired from the jet lag. After reaching the lake we made a small pic nic before heading back. This day made me realize that not only my stay in Chamonix improved my physique and technique climbing wise, but it also made me hate walking, and probably carrying heavy packs while doing so. Aka, lazy.
Ana noticed and made some mockery off of it, and she was a strong walker so for a few moments I reminded myself that climbing in these mountains required sacrifice and that big packs and long approaches are the price to pay for awesome routes in big mountains.
VALLUNARAJU, 5686 m
We decided to do Valluna the slow way, in three days, doing base camp, then moraine, then summit and back to Huaraz. It was my first time heading into this valley, so fresh landscapes for a change. I wasn´t super motivated to do a walk up mountain but I remembered that the previous season I was here it was said to have some quite exposed sections so I guesses there would be some adventure.
We set up base camp and I was surprised at the amount of little details and unnecessary things my new partner had, but then, if she wanted to carry all that weight, it was her choice, although further on I would have to suggest some cuts for the sake of the rope team´s speed. The next day we headed up to moraine, and being the more experienced I decided to watch my new partner in action during the approach. Although a fast hiker, she had quite poor footwork and mental game on some steeper sections of the trail, which clearly denoted a strong mountaineering but not a climber per se. This caused me some surprise as I was sold the idea that she was a strong ice climber.
We got to moraine and straight ahead I ran into Nacho and Chuchupe, among other acquaintance guides of the region, and we sat there talking for quite a long time while their clients packed their junk. Moraine camp had been full but we were about to have the mountain to ourselves which was totally awesome and just how I like it. We set up camp and I went by myself to check out the moraine and the route to the glacier. It had quite a good amount of scrambling and the glacier was super icy.
Next morning we left earlier than usual to allow for a slow ascent, and in the moraine again Ana´s progress was quite clumsy and slow. While roping up, more yellow lights, as apparently she couldn´t quite figured out how to coil the rope herself, and then ten minutes after getting into the glacier one of her crampons was falling. Also, she didn´t bring any ice screws, even though everyone in town was talking of how dry and icy the mountains were this season (I had a spare, obviously). Naive as I am I thought she was nervous, so okay…
I couldn´t really find the entry route right away, so we navigated icy crevasses until I finally found the avenue to the summit. It didn´t take me long to get absolutely bored to the point of being angry with the slog. The crevasses were quite open and big, so we kept walking several hundred meters to the right and left in order to gain height. Aside from that, Ana was super slow so the ascent felt like it was taking forever.
We finally reached the col between the two summits, and headed to the west one (lower) for some pictures. Ana didn´t seem very excited even though it was her first 5000 m. Well, I was for sure quite excited to be sharing a moment like this with someone with her history. I guess on the inside she was happy having overcome some demons but just couldn´t show it then.
Descent was uneventful, then we packed everything and headed to base to wait for our taxi.
PISCO, ATTEMPT #1 (DOES THIS COUNT AS “ATTEMPT”?)
During our rest day I was in doubt if we should do another mountain or head straight to Alpamayo, since we could to the latter the slow way. But after thinking over everything I watched in Valluna, I decided to be more patient and analyze the new partner a second time before going to a more committing climb like Alpamayo. Aside from that, Alpamayo is a 5-7 day climb and in order to stay all that time with someone you have to be getting along and day after day, my new partner was proving not to be the most social of creatures, even though myself and other people were making our efforts.
So we headed to do Pisco in 2 days, and heading for the summit from the refuge, gaining 1100 m. This is the standard height gain on most routes in the range, and we would be sleeping and eating in the refuge, so no excuse as to having a bad night or eating bad. Still, my idea was ill received, but as the the most experienced one, I just couldn´t evaluate her ability to more committing climbs and approaches if we were taking it easy all the time, and besides, girl seemed quite strong, so we went for it.
I felt quite tired on the hike up to the refuge and Ana disappeared in the trail ahead of me while I took several breaks. After finally getting to the refuge, and because as she herself said, it was “her climb”, I stayed in resting while she went in to check the moraine and the trail for the glacier. On her way back she had all sorts of laborious ideas about fixing another rope to the fixed chain that exists in order to get onto the moraine (it is a little steep but with very lose, sandy covered rock). I figured it couldn´t be that dangerous for a route so popular with beginners and told her to chill cuz if we really needed I´d set up a belay system or lower her.
So at 1 am we headed off to the route, and after the keeper Federico told me it takes 1h30 to 2h, I figured that maybe we would be leaving too early. So we started heading up to the first moraine shoulder in a super slow pace, and I told Ana once we´d got on the glacier I´d be in front for the first few hours to pace her, since I noticed she started too strong. It made her a bit angry but again as the most experienced, final word was mine.
So we finally got to the fixed chain. The section reminded me a bit of the moraine of Artesonraju from Parón, quite sandy, but absolutely doable and no necessity whatsoever for another fixed rope. It took Ana ages to descend, and then she finally took the lead on the trail to the glacier. The pace was as slow as could be, and she kept pointing me details of the last time she was there, however without efficiently finding the trail because her headlamp was so weak. I kept having to flash my beam light onto the moraine behind her at the million stops we did, to locate cairns. Eventually I asked why her headlamp was off if she was leading, and in fact her headlamp was on but just a dim light that she said was okay. I didn´t miss the opportunity to demand that she buys a better headlamp if she wants to climb in these big mountains with big glaciers.
The pace was so slow that my body wasn´t even warming. Worst still, her footwork was terrible, stumbling around, and it was obvious that she was already too tired. We eventually got further left of the last shoulder of the moraine, and she actually wanted me to go up a sketchy slope of sand, probably because all factors added, she couldn´t find the trail herself. There I went with my super headlamp, back a few minutes, and finally located the last fork. I put her front up again and after another eternity we reached the glacier.
After we reached the entrance of the glacier, I started putting up my crampons and told her honestly, that I was worried about her condition as she seemed very tired and in no condition to complete the route. She angrily refuted saying she was indeed “just dizzy”. In my head I already saw myself dragging her up and down the route and having a big problem… again we were the only rope team so if something happened it´d be up to me to take this lady out of the mountain. Thinking that was enough time for her to finally tell me that the bulb in her lamp wasn´t working. She didn´t have a spare.
So that´s why her light was so dim… In seconds, and after having a crampon and a half on, I made the decision to not go on with the climb. And told her firmly I coudn´t make that much compromise. Ana got angry saying the sun was about to come out (indeed, it took us 3 loooong hours to reach the glacier), in a tone as if she was talking to a guide. “The headlamp is the least of our problems now” was enough to end the discussion as I refused to get on the glacier with her to what could be a 12 hour climb (normally takes 5 hours up), with someone so slow and incapable at the moment. I am no guide and even if I was I wouldn´t expose myself to that amount of time in such a cold and windy mountain, even less having to take responsibility for someone in that bad of a shape.
We returned through the moraine with me turning around every 5 meters to shed light on the path, and right at the beginning she took a fall. As we progressed her shape got better and on the fixed chain I told her I would belay her, which she refused again very angrily. I clearly stated I waive all responsibility, and finally on top I had to hear some rude comments before she turned her back and walked back to refuge without waiting for me.
“I don´t have to take this shit” I thought, especially after all the effort to integrate her with the other people I had been hanging out in Huaraz, and all the good mornings that went unreplied. I could just pack my stuff and leave this ungrateful person behind to figure out herself how to get back to Huaraz with her non existent Spanish (since she didn´t make an effort even to say gracias and relied on all my know how and language skills). But nice person I am, I waited for her to pack so we could descend together. While I waited in the eating area, I saw her leave without me again.
Girl is a strong hiker up but terrible descending, so I just put on my headphones and headed down the trail in my normal speed, quickly leaving her behind. I reached the Pisco curve and waited for her for 30 minutes. From there we walked another 15 minutes to the control point during which she apologized for the bitchiness and asked about Alpamayo. “It´s not gonna happen”, I told her, and explicitly told her all the grave deficiencies I had watched in these two climbs. “Go to Ishinca because if you wanna climb big routes you need to up your game a lot”. End of game with this one.
THE PISCO WALL, 5752 m
How fulfilling it is when the day finally arrives that you climb something that in the past you thought was super hard and totally out of reach. One day while hanging out at Cafe Andino I ran into an ad from Bernardo, a German who had been abandoned by a partner who suddenly lost his motivation. We met again the next day at the same Cafe Andino and I interrogated him fully to make sure this time I was having honest answers. We decided to climb together but I still wanted to acclimate further, and the big problem was that I had already climbed all the acclimatization mountains and didn´t want to repeat any of them. Bernardo then made a great suggestion, to climb the Pisco south facing wall.
I dreaded the idea of repeating a climb and even worse, to go through the Pisco moraine again, but climbing the Pisco wall as acclimatization was an opportunity I couldn´t miss. We decided to head up on one day, investigate the possible routes and access on the second, and climb on the third. On the same day we´d leave, an Argentinian 8000m climber, Juan Pablo, and his german partner Veronika would also be heading to the refuge. JP had a car so we rode with them.
JP´s presence really cheered up the atmosphere and it was great to see the italian refuge team again, especially the uber nice and eternally smiley italian Federico. We took some pictures of the wall to have some ideas of possible routes up and then spent the rest of the afternoon playing dice brought up by JP.
Next day Bernardo and I left to check possibilities. Took us about 1h45 to cross the moraine to the glacier. It took us longer than expect to reach the base of the possible routes as the snow was quite deep, and I had my deepest fall onto a crevasse, up to my chest chimneying with my feet, but Bernardo was super quick to hold me which was quite reassuring. The longer options on the rightmost side of the face were indeed too exposed to seracs as we had previously expected, but two corridors in the middle of the wall seemed quite feasible albeit with some exposure. We decided on the left one, and then headed back to the refuge stomping the snow even more to avoid our tracks disappearing due to the night wind.
It took us 7 hours to do all that work, round trip from the refuge, reaching about 5200 m, so I can say I got back to the refuge quite tired, but then we ate quite a lot and slept quite comfortably, and besides, Federico made a specially powered breakfast for us for the next day.
We left at 1 am and although tired, reached the glacier 15 minutes faster than the day before. Our tracks were somewhat covered by the wind but still visible. When we reached the base of the route we still had to cross another crevasse and there I fell in again but mainly because my legs were too short to cross simply by making a big step, as Bernardo did. The lip broke but I quickly pulled myself up.
We got on the wall simul climbing easy 50 meter powdery snow. We reached a somewhat rocky area with very bad snow. It could take protection on rock but we left it in the refuge. Pickets wouldn´t hold and even less screws, so basically, we were screwed, but only until Bernardo suggested we descend a bit and try the right side of the snow rib (I refused to climb over it as I had previous experience climbing over Blanca´s snow ribs and it is waaaaaaaaay too sketchy). So we descended some 20 meters, traversed on crappy snow and then looked up… and finally saw a clean possibility.
Again simul climbing super fast we finally reached the serac at the top of the ridge, and the most icy section. Reaching 80 degrees at times and with terrible protection possibilities, we did 2 short pitches on good ice and terrible snow, all underneath the bit serac hanging over us. After the second pitch I finally dragged myself over to the ridge where I saw the tracks of the normal route and a guided group taking a rest. After hours under the shade and with considerable wind and quite cold, we were finally under the sun.
Took a quick rest for food and water and less than an hour later we were at the super windy summit of Pisco, with what is indeed the prettiest view I ever had of this range. So exciting to see Chacraraju this close, as well as the privileged view of the Huandoys, Arteson´s SE face and Huascarán Norte´s super steep north face. I felt so ready to get on truly hard stuff!
But truth is it was way too windy and we just stayed 5 minutes. About an hour later we were at the entrance of the glacier again, totally spent, burned and hungry. And we were at our limit in terms of time to get our taxi. Still an hour plus of moraine to go, packing everything at the refuge and another hour down to the taxi… But so worth it! Federico received us with big smiles after our summit. The route was open for the season and I finally got to do some proper climbing.
ADVICE TO THE YOUNG AT HEART
Brad Johnson states in his guide “the Cordillera Blanca is not a place to learn to climb”. Let´s highlight this just to make sure everyone understands:
I have lost count of how many times I´ve seen people get their asses kicked in this range. People that arrive boasting of skills and fitness just to be put down by plain lack of proper preparation for the long approaches and heavy packs in altitude. In 2014, I climbed 9 mountains above 5500 in 9 weeks, and as time progressed, I needed more days of rest in Huaraz – and resting at 3000 m isn´t really resting. Ana for example made fun of that and thought it was an exaggeration, having no idea the toll altitude takes on the body if you climb back to back 6000ers even for just four weeks.
I´ve lost count of how many rock climbers have made judgement on my climbing skills just because I never climbed rock harder than 6c at sea level, however non of these people would even consider climbing a 6a on 5400 m with a heavy pack after days of approach and sleeping uncomfortably and eating poorly in cold weather.
This is not a place to learn to climb, yet it is the perfect place to make people humble. People that come here and get their asses kicked on easy mountains never again boast of climbing ability and physical capacity that they don´t have. Altitude makes you slow. It makes you drop your climbing grade by many grades as you go higher. It makes it harder to think, to be efficient, to succeed. I´m tired of explaining this, and this year, even though evil, I did laugh at some people being put into their rightful places after realizing that being a badass at sea level doesn´t necessary translate well here.
Worst still is seeing beginners venturing onto dangerous territory with their arrogant attitude. Badass is as badass does: you are as good as what you do, and until you really do easy to moderate stuff in altitude a lot, you are not ready to climb here as hard as you do at lower altitudes. This is a place to be humble first. There´s no refuge here, no mountains rescue police, no helicopter service. Almost every accident here is fatal, and rescues only pick up dead bodies.
Also of utter importance, people need to stop lying about their experience expecting that a more experienced partner will solve any eventual problems that arise as if he/she was a guide. Especially in big mountains, that type of stupidity could easily turn to tragedy. It´s selfish and disrespectful of other people´s plans and expectations, at their expense. No one is obliged to take anyone on a mountain, and if you want someone taking care of you instead of working as a team, you need to hire a guide.
Be serious about these mountains. Be safe. Be modest, be humble. Have fun within the limits of reason.
For lodging as usual I stay in Casa de Zarela, a hangout of climbers, mountaineers and trekkers in a calm neighborhood of Huaraz. You can book online or write her on Facebook. True, it is not the cheapest place, but there has to be an explanation for why it is always full – of climbers mostly. Being at Zarela is like being at home, and one of the best parts are the long breakfasts after coming back from the mountains, that end up gathering sometimes dozens of people. She also organizes logistics (taxis, mules, porters, cooks, kitchen and camping equipment etc) free of charge for individuals. Eventually there´s a Pisco/Capirinha party, or home cooked dinners at the community kitchen.
Great coffee, snacks, and humongous dinner dishes can be found at Cafe Andino, where there is also a notice board of people looking for partners. The owner Isa is super welcoming and the atmosphere ultra relaxed. If you´re lucky enough you can catch one of the Bob Dylan tribute concerts.
I stayed in Refugio Peru twice in the past month for Pisco. Three Italians are running it, led by the super nice and excellent cook Federico. Great food, hospitality and comfort. Better than any refuge in the Alps and with a much fairer price.
North of Huaraz near the town of Marian is the Yurac Yacu Community Center, which harbors projects for poor women and has a day care and school for kids. They also have a cafe with delicious food and there´s some day hikes that can be done in the area if you´ve done everything else already, like me.
California Cafe still has the best chocolate cake in town, and the only decent wifi.