Approved partnership with Bernardo, we decided to head to Alpamayo and Quitaraju next. I had been there already, and climbed Quitaraju in 2014. Alpamayo was a no go due to 2 nights of storms, and although it has never figured high on my list of climbs, I figured I should try it again just because it is a famous mountain and all potential partners I talked to wanted to climb it, including this one.
I dreaded thinking of the long, multi day approach, plus the day to reach high camp, and in fact was in a lot of doubt about why I even said I wanted to climb it, but some mental exercise put me in the right mental state and focused to endure another week long trip to Santa Cruz valley.
Seeing how Juan Pablo was excited about getting into technical climbing, I thought it could be a good idea to invite him to come along since in terms of stamina he was quite strong, and Alpamayo isn´t really that technical so with some experience he could be a good second. Bernardo agreed and there we were, a three-strong rope team. Being a strong team and after talking to some people who had been in the mountain before, we decided to cut the approach short and head to high camp from base – everyone was telling us the glacier was a lot shorter, so there´d be no point in making a moraine camp.
Well, maybe I was not so strong as I was having some funky stomach feelings the days before we left. I should have used the three days rest between Pisco and Alpamayo to take a pill, but I ended up buying some medicine the day we left for the climb. I just went to the pharmacy as usual and got some pills, but they were super strong and I was just about to feel the effects for the following week.
Again we went on Juan Pablo´s car, and during the ride I felt quite buzzy and with stomach pain, thinking it was the bug being slaughtered. As we started heading to Llamacoral, the first camp at around 3800 m, the stomach pain increased a lot, I was short of breath and about twice I had to stop walking to gasp for air and sit down because I was so dizzy… it felt as if I was going to pass out and my vision at those times went blurry. I was dragging myself up the trail, in what felt like was hours of endless walking under basking sun. Eventually Achiles, the mule driver, got my backpack so that I could reach the camp faster.
Although feeling like the shittiest of shits, I did reach the camp on average time, 3 hours. However when I arrived, I felt like lying on the grass and dying, that´s how bad it was. I was so pale that on some pictures my skin was actually grey. I told the boys I was feeling really bad but that was probably the effect of the medicine, and I´d probably be better the next days and so on. There began my forced fast, as I couldn´t really eat anything because it gave me stomach pain. A guide from a group nearby gave me some powdery stuff for the stomach and Achiles got me some herbal tea from the locals. Both helped quite a bit as I could now stand up, and finally managed to eat some of the chifa we had brought for dinner.
The other arrieros, porters and guides were drinking quite a lot and some confusion came up, drunk fighting or whatever, but although they were quite loud, I was so tired and weak that I couldn´t stay awake for more than 5 minutes after getting into the tent, and just passed out to wake up the next morning.
I woke a bit better on the second day, but not nearly as good as I expected. Managed to eat my breakfast but in less than 10 minutes it started giving me pain. Bernardo and Juan Pablo were taking their time with their luxurious breakfast and packing, so I decided to head out for base camp ahead of them because I knew I´d be slower and I wanted rest time for the long day to high camp. I set off in a mellow pace while enduring the pain and feeling weak. Managed to eat some cookies on the way and drink some water, but again the pain just made it a turn off to eat anything. After 4h30 I arrived in base camp, at around 4300 m, feeling already better than when I left.
While I waited for the boys and Achiles to arrive with the bags, I met Michele, a four year old that was spending her vacations there with her mother. Her (single) mother Rosa lives in a shack in base camp and sells soft drinks, beers and can cook some simple dishes. Gianci had told me about this girl and indeed she was the cuteness personified. We started playing together planting “trees” until the arrival of the rest of the team.
This night I managed to eat some dinner but not much. I started being worried about calories because I knew I wasn´t putting in as much as I should, but I simply couldn´t eat, it seemed like my stomach was shrinking every day, and just the thought of having pain from eating anything made me not want open my mouth, aside from the lack of appetite from the altitude. For the first time in I don´t know how long – maybe my entire life – I was turned off by the thought of food. People who know me know this is sacrilege, since I normally eat a lot.
The next day things started getting worse in a sense. Although I woke up slightly better, I could only eat half of my breakfast and the pain came almost immediately. Although sick, I had been the only one to check the trail to moraine camp the previous day, so I left on the front of the pack. Walked very slow with the 20 kg+ backpack, and offered to give way to the boys but none wanted. After about two hours we reached the moraine where navigation is a bit more complicated, and as I tried to find the way between cairns, Bernardo and Juan Pablo were happily discussing if Elbrus was part of Europe or not, and if Denali should be considered one of the seven summits and if so, there should be an eight in Central America as well and so on… only until I asked for help since I wasn´t feeling good at all and could take a break from finding the way.
Wish half granted as until we finally reached the glacier I was still actively collaborating in route finding. So we reached the glacier and got all equipped. I don´t know why it fell on me again to lead the glacier and therefore break trail, me the sick one that felt like vomiting every 20 minutes or so, but there I went. And in 2 minutes that I started walking, both men had problems with their crampons, which weren´t properly adjusted to their boots – something you do at home before leaving or in base camp when there is nothing to do, and not when you get on a glacier on a long day of approach. After endless minutes of tinkering, we finally started walking.
Indeed the glacier was shorter this year, but not as much as expected. It was for sure a lot icier. This day of the approach can be more technical than the climb itself, and this year in particular, it was super technical. After slogging in the snow for about two hours, we finally got next to the rocky wall that marks the section that leads to the col. The weather was crappy and quite foggy but that was expected for this particular day.
As we stopped to get the second axes a rope team of Austrians passed us, which gave us more time to rest, especially me. I was already exhausted and having some difficulty breathing. My legs felt heavy and I kept feeling like I was going to vomit, but in my head I was there and I was going to climb the mountain. If I reached the high camp there would be no turning back and I would get on that mountain and summit it even if I vomited my guts out on the way up.
We passed a first icy step that wasn´t steep but was like a big staircase over a crevasse. It was enough to make Juan Pablo start complaining in fear, but that was the route. As I passed it and progressed further, I could see the lead Austrian chimneying some ice, and I got super motivated to finally climb something cool. Same couldn´t be said of JP, who wanted to take a right option. Since I had been leading all day, and was going to keep leading as no one offered to take the lead so I could rest, we were gonna have things my way.
This first step two years ago was just steep snow, but now it was a 20 meter ice corridor with an overhang entry and exit. The ice was quite good, but JP slipped on the way up there showing he had zero technique, so I decided to climb belayed, as I wouldn´t risk being pulled down on a section like that. As I overcame the first overhand, my heart was beating super strong, and I felt like my internal organs were gonna come out through my mouth. I could feel the oxygen having been sucked out of every muscle fiber of my body, and it was tiring to even put another ice screw.
While I was catching my breath to keep on going up on less steep ice, both men started complaining from bellow, as if I was taking too long. Well… leading overhang ice with a heavy pack at 5300 m, sick and without a proper meal in the past days can be a bit hard right? Not for them. I started having the disgusting feeling of being used as guide as I had in previous occasions. But I kept going up listening to the princessy complains from bellow and calmly replying “I´m putting and ice screw”, or “no, I´m not on the other overhang yet”, or “I´m setting a belay”. Not very motivating, not great team work.
I brought up the two and from there Bernardo finally offered to lead the second technical step which was a lot shorter, and I promptly accepted almost as in… demanded it. While at it, JP cursed and complained a lot, and I guess he had never actually climbed anything this technical before, although he said he did, and at 7000 m, but it was obvious there was no technique whatsoever, which could slow us down a lot once on the actual route. We then went over the final step and gained the col, 7h30 after leaving camp. I was completely drained of energy and hardly had any strength to stand up, but still had to set up camp all by myself, as I was sleeping alone in Tijuana.
Then another episode of feeling used like a guide, as JP wanted to monopolize the only stove we have to cook a five course meal. Since I was doing all the work and obviously would be doing so the next days, I wanted to get my food ready (in 5 minutes) and sleep to recover, but no, I was supposed to wait for tea, a 15 minute cook time soup, then hot water for freeze dried food and then yeah, I could use my own stove. I don´t know if I look like a luxury Himalayan guide service but I cooked my food after their tea, melted a whole bunch of snow and still gave them water. All that in 20 minutes or so.
Couldn´t eat though. Maybe I ate a third of what I cooked (the usual egg pasta+tuna+tomato sauce), and spent the next hours just laying down trying to sleep while a storm came in and dumped quite a lot of snow on us (maybe 15 cm). The boys kept asking about conditions and strategy and plan. I had already had a chance of looking at Quita and I wouldn´t want to get onto it with the avalanche slab that was hanging from the top, besides, I wouldn´t have energy for both mountains. It was clear that with a storm even worse than two years earlier, we wouldn´t be able to climb Alpamayo, at least the following day. But because we had two nights up there, it wasn´t all lost, in fact, I had good hopes we´d climb the last day. Some Coloradoans (is that how you write it?), Peter and Adam, that had been there for four nights already, had a satellite device with weather forecast and it said it would clear the last day, and that it had been quite accurate so far.
My lunch the following day were some gummy bears I had saved for the summit, which were the only thing I could chew without making too much effort and at least packed with calories. Still, even laying down, I could feel my body eating itself only so I could keep breathing and without feeling like I was going to barf my guts out.
Bernardo did not like having to stay in high camp doing nothing. Juan Pablo seemed to enjoy it a lot, having been on miserable high camps on 8000 m peaks before and being used to the boredom galore, but the fact is that the first was getting angrier and non stop machinating how we should have done things, maybe slept at moraine, maybe having more days in high camp and bla bla bla… in other words, trying to change what was already done. The atmosphere of the rope team wasn´t exactly the best.
JP had doubts about climbing the following day after I explained that the worst part would be the ramp to the bergshrund because that accumulates the sluff that comes from the corridors, and the last time no one climbed because it was avalanching. It was around 3 pm when Bernardo said that if we didn´t even try the next day he would go down immediately. He even said at some point that if I was sick, then we definitely had no chance. It gave me the impression that I would be accumulating the larger portion of the effort of the climb, even though I was the one disintegrating by the hour.
I guaranteed we´d try, started preparing a smaller dinner that I ate in full, and went to sleep. At 1 am we were up and before 2 am we left for the climb. Bernardo told me that JP decided not to come, and to this day I don´t know the reason why. I knew I had a lot less energy than desirable to climb and then go down to base camp, but I was so motivated that I seemed to be producing energy as I went. I wasn´t yet a liability and felt I could finish the climb, with lots of suffering, but I could do it. Breakfast didn´t sit well again and the 40 minutes to the crevasse before the base of the route were painful toleration of my stomach turning itself inside out.
It was really dark, although the sky was somewhat clear with some clouds. We kept walking and I could see the shape of Quitaraju but was a bit disoriented as to where Alpamayo was. I thought “it has to be behind us”, and then I made a 180 degree turn and saw it right behind our backs. An impressive big ramp full of corridors and the famous Peruvian flutes. “After three seasons, I´m gonna climb that, finally”.
Sweet illusion, huge disappointment. Bernardo stopped by the crevasse, still far away from the ramp, and although there was some wind slab and somewhat deep snow, I was willing to try. Yet, he was not. Not only he got angry and again screamed at me for no reason, he then let out a “I have a bad feeling about this, we should go back to camp”. As I heard these words, all the motivation that was feeding me energy started to vanish, and with any physical energy I had left. For some 10 seconds I stared at the route, almost within grasp of my hands, in disbelief that after dragging myself sick up there for days, with all the effort – especially mental – that it took to be standing at the base of that route, I wouldn´t climb it, and wouldn´t even be allowed to try. Huge mental confusion as I mumbled some words of agreement about the conditions but probably due to disbelief couldn´t produce the words to encourage him to try.
It had its effect on me as I walked super slow back to camp, in disbelief that his situation was happening. He asked me how I felt, “as shit, you?”, “I´m feeling strong”. That sealed my anger. If he was feeling so strong, why didn´t we even try to check conditions, to get to the bergshrund, why did we turn around without even getting close to the route? Conditions were bad, yes, but acceptable for a strong team willing to work hard. If both were feeling so strong all the way up there, why the hell was I doing all the f*cking hard work and leading?
I saw the headlamps of a guide and his client as they ascended vertically, thinking we should be there. If JP had told us the night before that he wasn´t coming, instead of when we got up, we could have put in another hour of sleep and trail would have been broken, and maybe that would give Bernardo more confidencem but that´s crying over spilled milk. As morning came we could see them very close to the summit and I kept thinking it should be me up there as well. What a waste of money, time, energy. As we prepared to descend I made it clear I wasn´t going to lead as my condition deteriorated and I couldn´t even think.
As we got to base camp I had no desire of hanging out as not only my body kept consuming itself, but now my mind was consumed with anger and frustration. Before coming here this season I knew that the harder you climb the harder it is to get a good partner, and ideally I should come here with one already, but in Chamonix I didn´t meet anybody with stamina enough to go big down here, and with proven experience and performance in altitude. I knew it would be a risk to come by myself partner wise, and that is why I accepted to do easier routes so that I could at least climb some stuff. Yet, even though I thought I scanned people well, people were lacking as a whole. And that is why I cannot come back here unless it is with a regular partner.
My breakfast on the last day was a cup of hot chocolate. My stomach was getting worse, yet we walked back to Cashapampa in less than five hours. I drank a liter of boxed juice cold as ice, and that was all my body was taking. On the way back to Huaraz we stopped to eat at Chancos and I managed to finish my first meal in 6 days. I looked like shit with grey skin again, yet the boys seemed to believe I wasn´t sick at all, which rendered firm comment on my part during lunch so they could finally understand that I had been very sick for the past 6 days.
The following days in Huaraz I still had immense trouble eating, and everything I put in would come out. After 8 days of eating much less than 1000 calories a day and 2 nights at 5400 m, I had lost a huge amount of fat and muscle, and when I finally looked at myself in the mirror only in underwear, I could see the disaster that the previous days had visually done to my body. Worse still, the days in altitude with the immense physical effort and undernourishment had catastrophic results on my health. And all that for nothing. No summit, not even a sincere thank you.
I was destroyed, and I knew it would take me weeks to recover in Huaraz or at least a week at sea level. I felt the same as when I had overtraining: shortness of breath and very heavy legs. It looked like the season was over for me, and that killed my motivation to even be in Huaraz. What was supposed to be my farewell season here, with some great climbs, wasn´t even going to happen anymore. Maybe it was the definitive sign that, even though I excel more than most people in it, I should quit high altitude alpinism.
Gianci had come back from the beach when I arrived and it was fantastic to have such a warm welcome from him and from Zarela after such a tough week. He cooked us a rosti dinner and I managed, with quite a lot of effort, to eat my entire plate. We decided to head for Hatun Machay before Pesky, his friend from Switzerland arrived, to have some time for ourselves and “rest”. I was dying to show Hatun around to Gianci, it´s a place I love and the energy there is super special.
We knew there was some conflict going on with the refuge owner and the community and that the bolts, and consequently the routes, were “disappearing” overnight but we still wanted to go and check it out. We left a day after planned so that I could recover a bit more from my stomach infection and diarrhea, and arrived there late afternoon.
We spent the following days climbing some and also looking for routes. Did my first real crack climb on top rope, the famous “Welcome to Huaraz”, a 5.11a, equipped by Gianci who´s an expert crack climber and flowed effortlessly on it. I on the other hand I was more kung-fu-face-climbing using the crack than properly crack climbing.
The bolt situation though is revolting, and we wasted a huge amount of time on the last day looking for routes to climb. Hatun had a deadly feel about it, emptied of its soul with its clean walls and sectors devoid of climbers. It´s not what I wanted to show Gianci, but it was reality. We planned on coming back with Pesky a few days later, but it wouldn´t be worth it. At least we got some climbing done, and got some cool shots.
On Pesky´s first acclimatization day we went to Chincay, a new crag opened in 2013. It is 20 minutes down walking from Punta Callan, around 4000 m. It looks like a block that was sliced in four pieces and opened up. There´s less than 10 routes and some boulder problems, but the routes are quite hard on new limestone and very beautiful. The sun hits in the morning but it gets quite cold and super windy, so we had to cut our climb short, but the place is worth a visit early in the morning. Routes range from 6a to 7b.
I had been to Antacocha in 2014 doing an easy multi pitch with Chusky. It´s a great place to spent a day doing multi pitch and some hard sport routes, and even some modern trad. We went there to do Le Duc, a 4 pitch 7a+, but not sure we´d all do the last and hardest pitch. Some Spaniards came along as well as Gaspar and Chebala, so we got a van and shared the cost. Weather was good but our route was in the shade all day. I lead the first half, easiest, then Pesky went for a 6b that was more like a 6a and then Gianci went for the 7a+ on very broken and sketchy rock, and recommended none of us do it. So we descended on a few rappels and just enjoyed the rest of the afternoon with Juanín and his harmonica. Rock climbing in high altitude is really demanding on the body, and Antacocha is a place where you can actually accomplish a good climb without a huge effort, and with one of my favorite landscapes – it faces the mountains of the Huantsán massif.
Many of the pictures in this post were taken by Bernardo and JP, so thanks to them for sharing. The report may seem harsh but I´m not making anything up.