Thursday, August 5, 2010

Last Huaraz

Andrew and I are back in Huaraz, the Chamonix of the Andes. Our initial plan was to climb la esfinge then do a first ascent of some stretch of virgin rock. However we became enamored with the huge peaks here in the second largest mountain range in the world. As a result we decided to attempt a 6000 meter peak.

Our objective became Tocllarahu at 6035 meters (that is 19,800 feet). After getting supplies together we headed into the Quebrada Ishinca or Ishinca Valley. Unlike everone else it seemed we hiked our loads up to the valley basecamp. Most everyone else hired arrieros or burros drivers to pack in their supplies on burros. Still we maded it in a little tired but intact. The basecamp is just over 14,000 feet which would be at the top of all but the highest peaks in the US. The Ishinca Valley is a beautiful place with huge peaks jutting to the sky in all directions. Ishnica is a popular place for climbers and trekkers. I counted 40 tents there on the day we left. There is also a refugio there that you can stay in and even be served food and beer. We were on the cheapo climber budget however and did the more traditional tent camping.

Our second day we hiked up to a higher camp at 5000 meters (>16,000 feet). There we got our equipment ready for our summit push. We saw a girl we met in town coming down. She was happy but tired that she had summitted on this attempt, her 3rd. Andrew and I boiled water for what seemed like all afternoon. About half way through hydrating and filling our water bottles a guide came over and informed us that where we were getting our water from had 2 piles of shit just upstream. I couldn´t believe it since we were getting the water not more than 40 feet from the glacier itself! We began getting water from higher up (the glacier´s edge) but thought we might be ok since we were boiling it. Unfortunately boiling temps at 5000 meters are not enough to really kill everything - so we found out later.

That night a party of 4 left at midnight, a party of 9 at 1AM. We had planned on getting up at 2AM for our summit bid. I awoke with the first party at midnight and noticed I couldn´t see very many stars - aka there were clouds. We had been observing a weather pattern consisting of clear skies in the morning with clouds slowly forming and overtaking the peaks around 9AM. Now that there were clouds at night was concerning. Andrew had acquired a cough a few days earlier that seemed to have turned into bronchitis but he was still gung-ho on going up. So at 2AM we got up and were out of camp in about 15 minutes.

From the glacier we hiked up in the cold morning air following a path stomped into the snow by the hoardes before us and led on by many twinkling headlamps stretching up the mountain like a string of christmas lights. As we hiked we noticed in the moonlight that the summit was already covered in a boiling cloud. Still we carried on since all parties in front of us were guided. Maybe they knew something we didn´t. As we ascended a few people had already had enough and were headed down.

We met the party of 9 at steep section where you must cross the bergshrund (the place where the glacier is ripping away from the mountain). The section had about 15 feet of near vertical ice and the guide was having the 9 Austrian climbers use and ascender on the rope and pull up on their ice picks with the other arm. The men seemed to be able to muscle through but the women were having much difficulty. The guide was even pushing them up by hand to no avail. Andrew and I asked to pass but were denied and sat there for at least 45 minutes getting very cold. I searched on both sides of where they were climbing for another way. There was none. Finally the guide said to let the Americans go past. I easily climbed the section in about 30 seconds and Andrew followed quickly too. Now up on the summit ridge and totally encompassed in clouds we followed the broken bootprints in the snow slowly up through the haze. We had almost turned around below the party of 9 but now had renewed vigor that were moving again. Maybe the clouds would clear?

At a slow but steady pace we inched up the mountain with Andrew occasionally checking his watch for our altitude. Above us through the fog I saw two men rappelling. They had summitted and said we were pretty close. The next section required both ice tools as it was good solid snow but was fairly steep. I led the way and clipped a few fixed protection pieces in the snow as I climbed. Andrew´s watch said we had 200 meters to go as we topped another ridgecrest so we trudged on. Surprisingly we reached the summit in about 5 minutes. Andrew´s watch was not calibrated correctly. Surrounded in clouds the view was . . . well. . . all clouds. At almost 20,000 feet we were skirting the "death zone" where no human can survive for extended periods of time. We both felt great however.

Descending went very quickly as each step down brought more oxygen to our lungs. Rappelling off of snow pickets (aluminum stakes stuck into the snow) and cords threaded through holed drilled in the ice we descended by rope and of our frozen feet. We did not make it out of the clouds until almost at our high camp at the edge of the glacier. Andrew had to stop almost every 2 hours with loose stools. Evidently the water was getting to him. By 1PM that afternoon we were back at the basecamp and exhausted. Andrew, with his bronchitis and no intestinal bug was worked and he promptly fell asleep outside the tent not moving even as it rained throughout the day. I was pretty worked as well but at least managed to sit in the tent and read.

Unfortunately I too got the intestinal bug either from Andrew or the same water. Luckily the thick air at 14,000 feet felt comfortable ,) We decided to bite the bullet and hired an arriero to hike out our equipment. I had mildly injured my knee on the descent and Andrew who had amazingly climbed a 6000 meter peak with 2 illnesses was not really begging to carry a heavy pack either. Leaving the valley was kind of sad. I have never been in such impressive mountains before and knew that this would be one of those landmarks in your life that you would never forget.

Back here in Huaraz we have been nursing our sickness with antibiotics, rest, and cleaning up our gear. Tomorrow night we head back to lima on a night bus with fully reclining seats - NICE!

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