Alpamayo, Cordillera Blanca, Peru, July 2003

(by Brian Rowe, from IMC Newsletter Spring 2004)
Climbing Alpamayo and Quitaraju.

Earlier in the day Juan’s assistant had a bruising encounter with a gringo posterior, which had catapulted from on high knocking him off his feet. A cowering heap on a small mountain ledge, he had managed to struggle on but his nerves were shot. Now on Juan’s descent, he encounters the accomplice to the feared posteriored one, a bedraggled character to be sure with bruisings all over his body and a weary expression. The scoundrel has belayed to Juan’s fixed rope fixing and was bringing up the posteriored one. She was getting dangerously close. Juan and his assistant had been employed to fix this rope all the way up Alpamayo’s Ferrari route for a group of middle-aged Gringos (Austrians) and the last thing he is interested in is other people getting in his way; now his efforts are being hampered by the presence of this pair of gringos. Juan gives the gringo a piece of his mind but he does not seem that repentative and barks something back in English, something about ice showers and delay. Juan kicks the gringos’ rope off the small stance in rage and abseils out of there. On the way down he tells the posteriored one to bring his gear back to camp when they are finished with it.

Several hours later back in camp, Juan monitors the two gringos as they descent the mountain and is there to meet them as they reach camp as he presumes there is a high chance they will run away and hide his gear!!! He is speechless when to his horror, out of their rucksacks, they pull out his gear; what where they thinking?, the ice screws, sling and carribeaners were part of the fixed rope system. A vital link that should be now 3/4 of the way up the mountain, what imbeciles!

Yes indeed, Martina and I arrived back to camp after a long day, carrying down gear that we thought Juan wanted returned. He wanted something returned, I still do not know what as there was nothing else there (after much fuss it turned out that this piece was not that vital after all). Our day had started well after setting out at 3am behind a guide and his Chilean client. They made grand tracks for us through the knee-deep virgin snow. We reached the bergschrund at 6 and waited while they surmounted the awkward overhang. We waited for 2 hours. As we readied ourselves for our attempt a young French pair arrived. "How long have you been waiting?" "Two hours" "Can we go ahead?" "NO". I struggled over but Martina got stuck, and could not surmount the problem, making several attempts and finally landing down on top of the poor Peruvian (Juan’s assistant) who tried to help. The French had forged a bypass to the overhang not being prepared to wait for us and while Martina and I struggled with the overhang, four more climbers used this bypass, including Juan and his assistant who were setting up a fixed rope. Two hours later and we were at last on the main face of the climb, 350 metres of 60 to 70 degree névé and ice in a single gully line to the summit ridge. The problem was that we were now last behind 8 climbers; 8 climbers who were knocking down lumps of ice that smashed down on every part of our bodies, our knuckles, our knees, shoulders and faces (it was very dangerous to look up). The main culprit of this rock-hard shower was the Peruvian pair who carelessly chopped out large areas to fix their fixed rope gear. We very nearly retreated off the route altogether as we were so battered and bruised. It was at this point that I belayed to the fixed rope gear; I reckoned they owed me one!

Two days later, after another day of run-ins with gringos (a friendly American pair, Tim and Gabe) and Juan and his team are on top of Quitaraju. They have been waiting at least an hour for their ancient clients to top out up the fixed rope. The last one appears over the crest and at last they can go, but what is this? another body; it cannot be, but yes it is, the accomplice to the posteriored one and he is climbing up the fixed rope. Speechless again, look at him, broad smiles and buenas diases.

What a beautiful morning that was as I climbed to the summit to be welcomed by 4 gaping mouths, clear skies, my first 6000m peak, Alpamayo, silhouetted against the reds and oranges of the breaking day. Horizontal bands of colour low in the sky with the black mountains prickling through and the vast dark sky above, stars still to the west. Martina had to turn back with a sprained muscle, so I had accepted the offer of this handrail to the summit from Hansi, the Austrian leader of a group (an old style alpinist and a gentleman). A face climb averaging about 60 degrees, Quitaraju was about twice as long as Alpamayo and completely different in character (ying and yang). While Alpamayo had been cold and foreboding, an enclosed gully, and consequently a funnel for ice and snow bulleting down from on high, Quitaraju was an open mountainside with spectacular views of the surrounding mountainscape. Climbers were well spaced and there was little icefall. Additionally, the Alpamayo climb was west facing and was in shadow the whole day, while Quitaraju faced east and caught the sun full on from 7am in the morning. The snow was in beautiful condition from top to bottom.

On reaching the top my only regret was that I had not soloed as it would have been easier than dragging a prussik up behind me and climbing with one axe (I had no proper ascender). It was wonderful to get to the top on such a beautiful morning but getting to the top of a mountain on a fixed rope is just not the same. When we were kids, my father used to set a party game that consisted of racing around the garden with a curtain ring on a tight string. It was a timed race and because you had to return your ring, you had to follow the exact route of the string, no straying off, no short cuts possible, no chance of getting lost. This is what I had in mind as I followed the fixed ropes to the top. Sanitised climbing, no risk, no apprehension as to what is ahead or whether descent is possible, no consideration about route finding and not much about weather; attached to this umbilical cord, what can go wrong? All that is left to do is to lift one foot and then the other for 14 pitches, until you reach the top. Then abseil back down in less than an hour, back in camp in 2.5 hours from the top.

Note: Juan, although technically proficient, was an unpleasant and impatient guide. This was unusual as most of the Peruvian guides and porters that we met were friendly and good humoured.

We spent 3 nights at Alpamayo base camp. It was beautiful; Alpamayo to the east, Quitaraju to the west and a beautiful panaroma of lower mountains to the south, white glacier stretched below us breaking away at its edge and falling down a wide valley. The skies were perfectly clear giving picture-postcard sunrise and sunset. Every evening, everyone would stand and watch the red sun melt into the embers and the black cols of the endless mountains, then they would hop into their down sleeping bags as the temperatures plummeted to minus 20. It’s 6.15pm; nothing to do but sleep for the next 12 hours unless of course you had to get up at 2am for your mountain ascent.

Climbing in the Corderrilla Blanca out of Huaraz is easy, that is to say, logistically easy; it is easy to get maps and guides, easy to get provisions, easy to arrange transport or get public transport and easy to arrange donkeys or porters if you need them for the treks into the high camps. After that it is up to you. Not so easy is getting up-to-date mountain and weather information. Walk-ins are picturesque and there is also wonderful trekking in the region. Time you do need. Lower mountains (up to 5500m) take at least 5 days. We were 8 days climbing Alpamayo and Quitaraju.

We have now sent home 55kg of excess baggage that constitutes our climbing, hiking and camping gear. From now on we travel light.

The front page of national newspaper El Comercio, some weeks ago, was one of those visual extravagances; big colour drawings, plans and sections, numbered bullet points. The subject of all this attention was a mountain and depicted in graphic detail was an avalanche sweeping away a bunch of helpless climbers. 8 dead and 10 injured. That mountain was Alpamayo, and we were climbing it 8 days before. It turns out that we met one of the victims several times, a young Israeli girl who worked in a trekking agency helping her Argentinean boyfriend. Her boyfriend had promised to take her up Alpamayo and when we arrived back from the mountain they were all set to go. She was very excited and wanted to hear all about our climb; we told her conditions were good and wished her well. She is dead now. The paper blamed the extreme temperature differentials for the unexpected avalanche. Temperatures were swinging from +15 Celsius during the day to minus 20 at night.

That is not why we offloaded our climbing gear; that was in the plan from weeks back but I am glad that we have moved on.