The Cordillera Blanca is world renowned for its high altitude mountaineering. But almost as awesome as the mountains themselves is the motley crew of international climbers who come to try their hand at getting high, on big peaks, cheap and fast. Example #1, Marko, from the Czech Republic. Hands down, the zaniest Eastern European caricature imaginable, complete with “Borat” accent and a lust for liquor. He climbed in a cotton sweatshirt and used a bandana as sunglasses…aka a blindfold. Marko eloquently explained the great physical difficulties of climbing in the area in said Borat accent: “If my knees had hands, they would punch face!”
“Finding the River” during sunset from high camp. “I must leave to find my way.”
Day 1: Approach
There is a balance between strength and acclimitization–as you gain more acclimitization you lose strength. So far in my alpine career, I’d gotten by without proper acclimitization, climbing solely on good cardio, strength, and acclimation from other climbs earlier in the season. While I’d been to 5000, 6000, even 7000m a bunch of times, I always blasted big summit days. I never slept higher than I needed to minimize risk of altitude-related illnesses, for which time spent high (i.e. sleeping high) is the major factor. So while the elevation numbers in the Blanca (6000m peaks) didn’t intimidate me, climbing in a style of good acclimation and sleeping high was going to be a challenge for me. But it made sense–we had a lot of mountains we wanted to climb and summiting only on strength, without proper acclimation, leaves you very drained for weeks after. The plan was to climb peak after peak. So I had to be patient boy!
After a few days at Peru’s best sport climbing spot, Hatun Machay (4200m/ 13800′) in the Cordillera Negra, Gil and I were ready to head into the big stuff. The Ishinca Valley was our acclimation plan. We’d climb Ishinca and the North Face of Ranrapalca.
Peru’s Cordillera Blanca has easy approaches where burros can be used if you don’t want to carry all your gear. We left Huaraz in the morning and were able to travel the ten miles to our high camp at 4900m (16,000’), by early afternoon. We set up camp, and were joined by a few others just in time for one of the most spectacular mountain sunsets I have ever seen (see pic above).
Cordillera Blanca approaches: easy and beautiful
Day 2: Ishinca climb
Ishinca (5530m/18,143’), is a popular trekking peak, only mildly technical by its ridges. We’d chosen a slightly harder climbing route, the NW face, a bit more challenging and steepening to 50 degrees. This was attractive because the route is essentially a baby version of the North Face of Ranrapalca (6162m/ 20,216’) so we’d get a good warm-up for that. Both camping high and summiting these moderate peaks were the integral parts of our acclimitization plan for this, my first jaunt into the Cordillera Blanca.
An “Alpine Adoption” is when a team of climbers agrees to include a lone person into their team. Marko had been alpine-adopted by a caring British couple who came to the conclusion that taking a loony Czech climber onto their rope team would be worth every bit of danger. A good laugh is priceless after all, and Marko sure knew how to tell good joke! We finished our climb of the NW face proper just at their team of three summited Ishinca. We celebrated together on the summit (the Brits brought beer!). “If I knew there would be more people here, I would have brought some Bailey’s,” quipped Marko. We descended the standard West Ridge, scoping views of our next climbing objective, the North Face or Ranrapalca. Total time 5 hours roundtrip from high camp.
Our Czech amigo Marko atop Ishinca with Ranrapalca in the background
Day 3: Rest Day
Because the big ranges I have climbed in have much much worse weather, I was unfamiliar with the voluntary “rest day.” But in the Cordillera Blanca, most days are good to climb in prime season, so Gil convinced me that resting would allow us to blast our objective the following day. Despite me asking probably half a dozen times to just climb the peaks on back-to-back days, Gil would not relent. This was his third season climbing in the Blanca and he had is system down, and wouldn’t budge. Plus he was wearing the women’s underwear, bought in Huaraz and complete with lace around the ankles. So he called the shots.
Ishinca in the evening Alpineglow, the sight we saw every day from our high camp
Waking up late, I spent the day in high camp alternatively napping, snacking and reading my book about the evolutionary psychology and genetic necessities of sex. Gil woke up feeling feverish and flu-like. We had been drinking water without boiling before we noticed a few lone cows in the area. Apparently the cows were taking their revenge for all of my past transgressions against them. Which have been many, as I pretty much despise cows. In any case, I also got the sickness, around 5pm. Gil was better by now and sleeping soundly, resting for our climb tomorrow. I lay in my sleeping bag, core tight and fighting the convulsions of the flu. By the time it passed through my body, it was after 10pm, less than two hours from our alarm. I was feeling better, with no more shivers, but I still couldn’t sleep. And it wasn’t just Gil’s constant flatulation making me feel bad…
Ben with the climb (N Face of Ranrapalca) in the background. You want a burro for that gear, dude?
Day 4: Ranrapalca North Face, Attempt 1
I checked my watch: 12:45 am. Wow, we have only been hiking 15 minutes on our Ranrapalca approach. Such torture. “Gil I need a break.” I sat down on the moraine, dreading the next month of climbing. I felt the worst I had ever felt in the mountains. 15 more minutes and I had to throw in the towel. Gil was very understanding–he had had that sickness and he knew I’d be better soon after another rest day. Another day of smelling fermenting mansweat confined in a small tent. How restful.
We returned to camp and the 1-hour aborted mission led into 8 hours of solid sleep. Waking up at 9:30, I read for a few more hours before fueling, hydrating, and going to bed again around 4pm. No repacking was necessary, we’d just repeat the plan. This time I got sleep, dreaming of running 200m sprints on the track. That’s a good dream, by the way…
Day 5: Ranrapalca North Face, sent
Gil woke me for the climb at midnight, and I was coated in sweat inside my sleeping bag. Not from the 200m track repeats, but because the sky was cloudy, holding in the heat. Freezing, of course, but warm temps, considering the altitude. This weather pattern was very unusual, as clouds didn’t usually start appearing until 9 or 10am. So it was a bit threatening. Both Gil and I knew conditions were not ideal, so we’d move fast. Two chilly hours to approach the start of the route and we roped up.
Ben rappelling the North Face of Ranrapalca about 2/3 of the way down the face.
The route is rated TD- in the French system. Perhaps more descriptively, it’s 850m, M3, 5.8, 60 degree snow. The cruxes are three rock bands, where the mixed climbing occurs. Gil led the the first half of the route, to about 5600m, including the first two rock steps. We simulclimbed except for the cruxes.
After the second rock band the sun rose on us, mysterious and glorious, through wild swirling clouds morphing and blowing around us like evil vapors in a giant cauldron. We regrouped there, and while Gil was transfixed by the sublime sight. I grabbed the lead. “See you on the summit, sucka” I called back. I forged us up bizarre suncupped snow-cone-like snow (without flavoring or dye but with fragile icy mini-ledges instead). Gradually steepening to vertical, I went up over the crux rock band and onto the summit ridge, topping out 5 hours and change from the start of the route.
Gil looks like he’s loving life in the sustained winds at 6000m, atop the last technical step.
Pulling over the last rock band, I encountered sustained hurricane force winds due to the deteriorated weather. No danger from storms, but oh the wind! Unusually crusty and hard spindrift was hammering my eyes and face as I brought Gil up, and we trudged through deep snow up to the summit crest. The peak is not commonly summited from this route, and this year’s summit ridge conditions were not good with very deep and loose snow. This year the peak was not summited by the few teams that had climbed the North Face and the nearby NE ridge–the normal descent route. The snow conditions didn’t bother me, but the full force of the wind was blowing me, all 185 pounds plus gear, off balance. I was wearing full down and bundled up and I was still shivering violently. We tried to dig in and wait for a break in the weather to run up the final 100′ to the summit pyramid but it became clear things were only getting worse. We couldn’t brew water with our stove due to the winds, and we decided to get out of there.
The easiest descent route was off of the NE ridge, but spindrift, wind, cold, and severe cornicing, as well as no knowledge of the route, led us to the decision that we’d be safer to descend our ascent route. While more difficult, at least we knew it. And we had only placed protection on the three crux rock bands, so would only need to rappel those, and could downclimb the rest. This was not super fun, and was not fast, especially considering the bizarre snow conditions on the upper half of the route. But things went as planned and we were soon back at the tent, 13 and a half hours camp to camp. Day 6′s hike out was heavy until near the refuge in the valley below we found some burros. They didn’t seem too happy to carry our stuff, but they did it without complaining…
Ben downsoloing the North Face ~5700m
Ben Horne and Gil Weiss
Ishinca, 5530m, NW Face, PD, July 4, 2012
Ranrapalca, 6162m, North Face, TD-, July 7, 2012
Ranrapalca in alpine lake reflection