Friday, July 30, 2010

La Esfinge

Our route follows red dots.

As we hiked out of camp and over a small rise my sleepy legs reminded me that we were at altitude. The crisp morning air and sight of Scorpios red heart (the star Antares) straight overhead seemed like good omens for the day. The approach from basecamp was about an hour long by headlamp winding through a sea of refrigerator size granite blocks.
Huandoy from La Esfinge Basecamp

We had awoken at 4:30am to the quiet beeps of my alarm. Since we had been going to bed early for the last couple of nights this was not as alarmingly early as you might think. Adrenaline competing with morning grogginess is familiar to me but this day would be a unique one. We began methodically preparing our clothes and equipment for a climb we had been thinking about for days. I got the stove started as Andrew put on 4 layers of Patagonia clothing (I did as well). The previous day we had dropped packs off at the base and so all we had to carry was our freshly heated water and food.

Andrew and I had left Huaraz in a collectivo which are local taxis that run up and down the mountain highways. They are actually just vans with homemade racks put on top that they stuff as many people as they can into (think sardine can). We took this for a few hours north to the town of Caraz where we got a taxi to take us up to the trailhead in the Paron Valley.  Dirty children and oxen pulled plows lined the way in a lifestyle that reminded me what I have read of medieval pastoral life.  The road ends at the edge of a majestic aqua colored alpine lake with frosty white peaks cresting the skyline.

From the trailhead we hired a porter to help carry our gear up to our basecamp at 4600 meters. FYI, 4600 meters is over 15,000 feet (higher than any mountain in the continental US).

At the trailhead
Porter and Karsten hiking to Basecamp

Looking up canyon on the approach
The Sphinx comes into view

We spent a few days there acclimatizing. One day we hiked up a ridge to 5100 meters to see how we would feel.
Welcome to the 5000 meter club

5000 meters
This basecamp was one of the most impressive places I have ever been in my life. We were on the north side of a valley full of huge glaciated peaks. Many were like perfect pyramids and then there was Huandoy. The massive Huandoy is one of the largest peaks outside of the Himalaya at 6340 meters (20,800ft) tall. We saw and heard multiple avalanches coming off this thing every day. Imagine blocks of snow the size of a 8 story building caving off! All I can say is, "awe inspiring."
The Kitchen
Chillin in camp

Home sweet home

We also saw a red fox lurking around our camp at one point but had no other visitors until our last day when several parties of climbers arrived.


Cordillera Blanca at its best
As we reached the climb the sun gently touched the base and we felt its warm arms surround us. Andrew began climbing. The rock warmed quickly and we shed several layers of clothes as we climbed. The climbing was not too difficult in the beginning but protection was very sparse. DFU (Don´t F$%& Up) land is a place that Andrew is familiar with and he made it look easy. About 300 feet up he stops and continues to belay me up. I am very warm now and shed even more layers.
The blob pitch
Karsten following the second pitch

I go up several interesting sections of rock and come to what is supposedly one of the 2 hardest sections or cruxes of the route. I climb into a corner and then must traverse out a thin crack. Imagine the position you are in when reaching down to pick up a heavy couch or box. . . then turn that 90 degrees and you get an idea of what this would be like. Now imagine carrying that couch up 3 flights of stairs while holding your breath. I traversed out, put in a camming device for protection, and then started moving as fast I could toward the edge of the roof. I could feel my heart beating and I was breathing as though I had just run the 100 meter dash. With a few technical moves I made it to a stance and took a few seconds to catch my breath. The rest of the pitch wasn't too bad and I felt exhilarated to have not fallen. Andrew climbed the section so smoothly I didn't even know he had done the crux until I saw him way past it in the easier section.
Andrew making it look easy

Next up was his equally hard climbing section. Andrew floated over the rock making it look quite pedestrian. I noticed it to be not as easy as he had made it look when I followed.
Andrew turns the lip on the big roof.

With the hardest section of rock behind us and making good time we were sure that we had the route in the bag although maybe we shouldn't have been so cocky.

Above on an easier section of rock a small foothold broke and Andrew took a 15 foot fall onto a 25 year old rusty bolt. Exciting! Besides that short moment of excitement we continued to move steadily upward. About 1:30pm the route went into the shade. Though we were moving well we still had about 1000 feet of climbing above. The difficulty of the climbing eased but there were sections of rock where there was no protection and route finding was arduous. I remember distinctively a couple of times where a fall would have been well over 100 feet! Toward the top our fingers began to get cold at belays and the map simply stated, "find the easiest way to the top." Well the easiest way ended up not being that easy. Andrew lead up and around a corner for a long way. We were out of earshot of each other but I knew he must have stopped because he pulled up a trail rope and then pulled in all of the lead rope. I began climbing around the corner and reached him. I had hoped that he was on the top or near but my heart sank when I saw that this was not so.
Andrew climbing high on the route

With the temps getting colder I took the rest of the equipment and continued up since I was warmest from just climbing. I weaved through several sections of crack and then saw the golden light of the sun on a rock on a ridge. Excited by the sight of the summit ridge I climbed faster only to have mother nature remind me that there isn't much air available at 5000 meters. I topped the ridge and bathed in the warmth of the sun. Andrew quickly followed and 10 hours after beginning the route we were on the 17,400 foot summit! High fives and hugs ensued and we took the obligatory summit photos. Even more mountains were visible from here. We took a few pics and short videos and then began the descent with the sun setting.

A half hour later we began rappelling as the sun dipped below the horizon. Three rappels later we reached some water polished slabs and were able to hike off. Though extremely tired we knew that we must get back to our camp with sleeping bags and water. Both of us were fairly dehydrated. On the walk back adrenaline finally was wearing thin and exhaustion was setting in. Like zombies in the night we stumbled through the boulders with headlamps. We saw people 1000s of feet below around the lake with their own twinkling headlamps probably drinking warm coca tea and with bellies full of food. 14 hours after leaving camp we were back. I was so tired that I could barely eat a few morsels of food and choke down some hot water. I wondered if the night had the usual cramping groins and hamstrings that I usually face after such an event but this night I was spared.

As fresh as Guinea Pig gets
Andrew and I awoke to another beautiful day. Though there were now 3 other tents in the camp everyone was up starting their own epics on La Esfinge. We, on the other hand, had just finished climbing a majestic face in the second highest mountain range in the world. Feeling much better we polished off a few shots of rum and scotch that we were too exhausted to drink the night before. Catching a small buzz at 10:00am in the morning there and having the most complete feeling of contentment was more than one can imagine. As we hiked down more avalanches came down off of Huandoy and I was sad to be leaving such a grandiose place. At the bottom a traditionally dressed Andean woman made us fresh Cuy (guinea pig). I know it was fresh because I saw her slit its throat, pull it fur off, and cook it for us. Yes, a little chicken-like but tasty. A fitting end to another grand adventure.


This trip has been amazing so far! Full of firsts:

1st time in Southern Hemisphere
1st time in South America
1st time in Peru
1st time above 5000 meters
1st time in the Cordillera Blanca Mountain Range
1st time eating Cuy (Guniea Pig)
1st time seeing a Guniea Pig get its throat cut
1st time being in a bus with 18 other people (in a bus for 12)
1st time seeing southern cross (star constellation)

Back here in Huaraz at the lowly altitude of 10,000ft we feel back at home. Yesterday we went to Chavin to see some impressive ruins. Interestingly we drove in a tour bus over a pass that was over 14,000ft. A team of archeologists from Stanford are there excavating. It was a really unique temple with interesting half black and half white staircases and an intricate labyrinth of passages beneath that the ancient Peruvians ate peyote and performed ceremonies inside. The outside of the building was adorned with large half cat half man heads that are very unique. The ancient people thought that this is what happened when they ate the peyote they believe.

We have treated ourselves to some nice meals and beer and now have our eyes set on a 6,000 meter peak. We have snow and ice gear but want to do an easy "walk up" climb. Tomorrow we are getting the necessary supplies and hope to go back in the mountains the following day. If weather cooperates we could be on the summit in as little as 4 days from leaving but we have a few days to play with as well. We are attempting to climb Tocllaraju (toe-ka-rah-who) in the Ishinca valley. Tocllaraju is 6032 meters (19,790 feet).

Afterward (August 6) we take an overnight bus back to Lima to meet Sarah Zane and Marissa. From there its off to the infamous Cuzco and Machu Picchu!

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