Past the point of exhaustion and chilled to the bone, approved I was only half relieved that we were making our last of roughly 15, 60 meter rappels to get off the face. For hours Fred had descended into the darkness below, tediously setting v-threads in the icy face. Now, after 20 hours on the go, we were finally back on the snow, almost to the glacier. “rope free,” called Fred. I put the ropes through my ATC, started to rappel, and then the unthinkable happened…the snow picket ripped, I fell backwards, and started sliding at full speed down the 55 degree snow slope. I knew the bottomless bergshrund was somewhere below, and I envisioned my broken body lying frozen in its depths. Unable to self arrest, I knew my time had come. I would die in the great Peruvian Andes, well before my time, under the glow of a full moon.
With a swift cruelty, the mountains can morph from a wonderland of natural beauty into the most savage of arenas. As fred and I hiked up the Paron Valley towards Piramide basecamp, it was not a changing climate, nor objective danger that caused the surroundings to shift from dreamscape to nightmare, but the microorganisms in my gut. Sulfur burps and excruciating gas heralded what I knew to be some variation of the Peruvian Stomach Monster. 1 hour later I was bent over a rock, evil substances erupting from my ass, tainting the pristine alpine moraine. I laughed at the rediculousness of my situation, something we must do from time to time. I continued upward, towards our moraine camp, stopping every 10 minutes to relieve myself. When the Peruvian Stomach Monster strikes, no fart is safe from a squirt, and toilet paper becomes worth its weight in gold. The mountainous kingdom quickly becomes an cruel prison, void of comforting porcelain thrones, requiring of the striken an energy that is no longer there, and a psych that lies splattered on the rocks in a light shade of brown. One becomes lonesome and frieghtened, disheartened and drained both literally and figuratively. I set up the tent in quiet desperation, pounded a couple liters of hot gatorade and crawled into my sleeping bag, hoping and praying that the night would pass with minimal runs from the tent. Fred, no doubt, prayed that the extra-foul gas that accompanies the Monster would be kept to a minimum. Just another afternoon in the Cordillera Blanca…
I woke the next morning to a calm stomach. Miraculously, my body had defeated the Monster! I was weak from lack of nourishment, but psyched nonetheless. The time and money spent on transportation and our Porter was not in vain. I looked up at our objective, the South face of Piramide, with its flutings of snowy gargoyles and menacing black rock butresses, culminating in a perfect point 19100 feet above sea level. My confidence was back.
We ate some breakfast and got suited up. We had elected to attempt the face from the moraine rather than establishing a glacier camp. The day would be spent crossing the glacier during daylight so that on summit day we would not lose time and energy navigating our way in the early morning darkness. 30 minutes across rock slabs and then we entered the massive glacier.
An endless sea of crevasses guard the South Face of Piramide and the West face of Chacraraju. The careless mountaineer will be swallowed by its bottomless cracks or crushed by its ever-falling seracs. We traversed slightly lower than the guidebook suggests to avoid a particularly menacing hanging serac, and determined that the glacier would take us roughly 3 hours before we could reach the bergshrund crossing and enter the face. We ditched the climbing gear on the last dry rock butress and retreated back to camp. That afternoon I admitted to Fred that I didnt think I had the strength to climb the next morning. We agreed to rest the next day so that I might eat well and gather the strength and psych to embark on what we estimated would be a 20+ hour push.
Why do we subject ourselves to the harshness of the mountains? Why do we endure freezing cold, blinding fields of snow and ice, thin air and biting wind? Why didnt I just stay in Huaraz and flirt with the cute Austrian girl I had met on the ride to Paron Valley? Why do I subject myself to the nightly gas chamber produced by Fred’s mountain flatulence? Why, why, why!? These are questions to be asked of one’s self back in town. But when the alarm goes off at midnight, these questions must be abandoned along with the spell of sleep. But I had not slept a wink. Instead I had laid awake for 6 hours while the tent glowed under a full moon, waiting for Fred’s watch to beep and signal that it was time to forge our destiny. When the digital alarm finally sounded, I was ready, almost relieved that the time was finally nigh. I suited up and jumped out of the tent. The mountains glowed fantastically under the midnight moon. I lit the stove, unhindered by the even a slight breeze. Mate de Coca coarsed through my viens. Cruz del Sur twinkled in the stary night.
The glacier crossing went flawlessly, and before I knew it, I was leading across the bergshrund. We were on the face by 4am. As the full moon dipped lower towards the cordillera negra, its hue turned from white to blood orange. The face steepened, the snow hardened, and soon I was under an overhanging rock buttress and setting our first belay after a couple hundred feet of simulclimbing. The technical crux was upon us. My mind was sharp and my skills honed. Hesitation, that harbinger of fear, lay splattered somewhere on the moraine below in a pile of dried diharea. Fuck yeah, I thought, this is our time! An unprotected traverse and one simulpitch of loose sugar snow followed by a traverse back left over a precarious snow ridge set us into the proper gully. The ice shone flawlessly in the early morning twilight, and I knew we were in for a treat.
The ice varied from 60-80 degrees, and accepted screws perfectly. I lead the simulclimb, keeping 3 screws between us at all times. When I had only 2 left, I would set a belay and bring up Fred. This went on and on…and on, seemingly forever. My calves burned, but technique and rhythm made the climbing managable and fun. We reached the summit mushroom after 10 hours on the face. 50 feet from the summit proper, a giant slab of snow slid down a couple of feet with me on top of it. Valuing my life, I downclimbed and we settled for a little sub-summit just below the real one. We melted some snow, drank some hot gatorade and had a short snooze.
Getting off a mountain in the greater ranges requires just as much, if not more, finesse and concentration as the ascent. It had been a flawless climb, but the descent was far from peachy. We left 2 snow pickets on the summit ridge and made a 60 meter rappel back onto the ice, where we set the first of many v-threads to rappel the entire face we had just climbed. When we went to pull the ropes, they were stuck. Heinously stuck. Fred took 2 hours to prusik back up to where the knot had lodged itself in the snow. I remained hanging at the belay, and by the time Fred had freed the ropes and made it back down to me, I was freezing. A wicked fog descended on the face, and the chilly moisture started to make life miserable. The routine of rappeling fell into place. Fred, who weighs a solid 40 pounds more than me, would rappel first, set a v-thread, and then I would follow down. Over and over. The big moon illuminated our surroundings once again, making it painfully clear than with each rappel, the glacier seemed only to inch closer. 7 hours after getting off the top, we finally got back onto snow. And then the last rappel was finally there…little did I know it would almost turn out to be my last rappel ever.
I came to a stop where the angle of the snow changed, meters above the bergshrund. I was in a state of shock, but unharmed. The ropes were still attached to my ATC, my ice tools still slung over my shoulders, attached to my harness via my tethers. I checked myself to make sure nothing had stabbed me and that all my limbs were intact and well. I stood there for a couple moments, contemplating what had just happened. Many greater mountaineers have lost thier lives in this range, but I was not to join their ranks that evening. I had to compose myself, for we still had to downclimb over the bergshrund and navigate our way back across the glacier and the moraine. We reached the tent at midnight, 24 hours after we had left it. We had sent, suffered, lived, and above all, learned. A sea of fog blanketed the valley below. That night I dreamed of Pollo a la Brasa and beer, but the taste I had in my mouth when I woke the next morning was one of alpine glory spiked with humility, bittersweet, the only way life ever tastes.