Well it wasn´t quite 6,000 meters, but it was close-5,686.Vallunaraju is one of the peaks I can see easily from the window of Café Andino where I`m writing. Its two summits poke up like cat ears; the left is lower by about 16 meters but it`s rounded and more accessable. I was on the left hand point about 30 hours ago.
It was a two day event; Ed and I left around 9 on Monday with loaded packs: glacier boots, crampons, Winter jackets, Snow pants,Gloves,harness, rope, ice axe, down sleeping bags, tent, and every last warm layer ofclothing we had brought traveling. Of course we rented the gear, making the trip fairly expensive at 145 dollars, but completely worth it (and cheap compared to the US or Europe).
We jumped into the tour agency´s van at nine and drove along what is probably the bumpiest road in all of Peru for two hours. We didn´t cover much horizotntal distance, as Vallunaraju is literally just vertical of Huaraz.We passed by a few smaller mountain communities and the road carved its way along the hips of smaller mountains until it suddenly stopped.
We were in a river valley; the road balanced several hundred meters above a rushing stream. I looked directly ahead and at its source: asnowy mountain cap sat just a minute down the road, and you could see the glacier actively funneling down and melting into the river. It was a beautiful mountain but it was not ours. From where we parked, Valunaraju´s icy Summit hid behind her hulking grassyside, to ou rleft. The mountain we could see clearly was Rahrapaka, a 6,162 giant.
There was no obvious trail, just a steep, steep hill cut by frozen streams and iced over waterfalls, handsomely molded red granite cliffs and voilet and yellow mountain flowers. The sun shone brilliant; there was not a single cloud in the vivid blue sky. Idyllic. Our first day´s misión was simply to climb the hill to Camp 1, or Camp Morena. In this context morena means moraine; the camp sits on glacial moraine at 4,900 meters, and just feet below the snowline and the terminus of Vallunaraju`s glacier.
The car stoped at 4,000 meters; we had 900 meters to climb,almost vertical, with full packs. No problema. We had just done 5 straight days of hard core trekking and we were in shape. We started climbing around 12 and got to Camp around 2, hill conquered. It was quite a nice climb; we walked hugging the rugged cliffs and under the soft spray of waterfalls,diamond like droplets showerng gently, glinting and evaporating into the blue.
As we climbed higher, the red cliffs around us started looking more and more like the canyonlands of the Southwestern US, strangely enough. Red, White and gray stripes and sweeps with chips of gold, massive striated boulders looming above the valley below. We walked on short, compact high altitude grass. It looks like individual grass flowers, and covered the muddy ground shaped into little lobes and nub like steps. There was one almost technical bit that we had to climb; There were definitely some fifth class moves. A bit hard with a 70 liter pack on. Mine got a bit stuck when I squeezed under the overhanging rock above me.
When we arrived at Campo Morena, it was the highest Ed or I had been, ever, aside from the airplane. On the Santa Cruz trek the highest we got was Punta unión, at 4785. Luckily I didn´t feel the altitude, but then again we had been in Huaraz for a week by then, which in itself is acclimitization. Mt. Rainier is 4,392 meters tall. So just at Vallunaraju basecamp, I was over 500 meters above the Summit of the tallest mountain in the continental U.S. You know the term 14-er? It refers to the14,000 foot peaks of the Rockies, its tallest peaks. 14,000 feet is only just over 4,000 meters.
Campo Morena is a small boulder strewn ledge, a Little rocky bowl halfway up our snowy giant. The sky might have been blue, but the wind ripped around the mountain and blasted our hard, spartan home for thenight. We had along, cold afternoon ahead of us. Ed and I spent some time wandering around and I snapped some pictures of the reddish peaks in front ofus- they were decorated with spots and scoops of bright snow, brighter than thelone cloud above. They seemed to lean to the left, as if in motion, and made me think of a herd of running appaloosa mustangs.
There were already eight or so tents set up in the sparse flat and clear spots in our cliffside camp. Ed and I had booked our climb for just us two and had a guide to ourselves; each of the other parties were in the same situation. Our guide spoke in broken, incomprehensible English, no matter how many times I pleaded with him to speak Spanish. All he could really talk about was how many brothers and sisters we had and where we were from.
Agencies won`t lead groups of more than 3 clients as as a safety precaution. The more people you have in a group, The higher chance there is something will go wrong, as I learned from our 15 person Santa Cruz trek.However, I was expecting less people, a virgin, desolate peak. I also imagined camping on snow. Why there is hardly any snow at 4,900 meters in theAndes is beyond me; perhaps it has to do with the range being the “tallest tropical range in the world”.
Ed and I pulled out our tent and I was confused within the first thirty seconds. Our tent was built like those cloth pop out tunnels kids play in, with a series of three poles in dome shapes, not crossing, and fabric stretched in between. It didn`t stay up on its own. We put he rainfly on and managed to secure them together, and discovered the zippers on the fly didn`t work at all. Not the best setup for a night with temperaturas below zero… at least our sleepingbags seemed warm, and I had my liner.
Not that it would be much of a night. To prevent us from falling victim to potential avalanches during the warmer daylight hours, our guide, Arones, would wake us up at 1 AM and we`d do the entire climb in darkness, hopefully arriving at the summit for sunrise.
Our fist challenge, however, was figuring out what to do to pass the afternoon. We climbed some cliffs to the right of camp to catch the last rays of sun before our source of heat dipped below the surrounding mountans. In the Andes you get early, early sunsets. We returned to a camp bathed in a frozen shade. I sat in the tent to put on more layers while Ed started building a rock Wall to block the wind. I´m pretty sure he knew it wouldn`t do much good; he just wanted an activity to stay warm and pass the time.
Why did we climb up here so fast? We could have easily slept in till noon. With long johns under my hiking pants I attempted to help with the rock Wall, and stopped after trippng over it and toppling it twice, then trying to be of use by passing Ed rocks that turned out to tbe holding downt he stakes for our rainfly. Oops. I retired to huddling in a ball inside the tent.
At about 4, Arones started boiling water and my attention perked. I sipped on cup after cup of hot tea while he cooked noodles for a very early dinner. At five it was too cold to be outside the tent, so Ed and I sipped on chicken noodle soup inside; dinner in bed.
At about 6:30, we decided we might as well hit the sack.We prepared our backpacks with glacier boots, harness, crampons, gaters, food and wáter,and had headlamps at the ready. I wore every single layer I´d brought minusthe snow jacket and pants to bed. Surprisingly, we were both pretty warm. Ididn´t get to sleep úntil about 8:30- understandable, really- so we lay there discussing travel plans and telling stories úntil sleep seemed plausible.
My eyes snapped open around 1 because I heard boiling wáter. I couldn´t be asked to check the time so I huddled in my bag until Arones woke us late, at half one. Sleeping in all of your clothes really isn`t a bad idea; it`s a whole lot easier to get out of the bag. We got our gear on and peeked outof the flap just a Arones had coffee ready- hot wáter in bowls. I dumped in powdered milk and instant coffee powder and slurped it up like a dog. We crammed down ciabatta rolls with butter and jam, expecting to have to run out of there. Arones kept delaying our departure though, and we didn`t start walking until 3. We were the last group to leave; a steady stream of headlights disappeared up and over the ridge ahead.
The first bit was solid ground and rock climbing. We climbed the same cliffs that Ed and I had climbed the night before, and just kept goingup and over an endless granite hill. It would have been fun and easy if my backpack straps weren`t constricting my arm movement and I wasn`t wearing thick snowgloves and too-loose clunky glacier boots and my heavy backpack wasn`t weighing me down and it wasn`t pitch black outside and my visión wasn`t limited to a square foot splotch right infront of my face. Arones had to pull me up the Cliff a couple times; the ammount of strength in these miniature size mountain men is unbeleivable.
Finally we got to the start of the glacier. I was already outof breath and shooken up by that first bit. We sat on the rock and pulled our crampons, gaters, and harnesses on, grabbed our ice axes. My harness had been fitted when I wasn`t wearing five coats, and Arones had to pull it so tight it was suffocating me. He tied us all together with a climbing rope. I watched him tie the figure eight knot very carefully, suddenly grateful I knew what acorrect knot should look like, able to doublé check. I admit, I can see how this climb could be considered slightly sketchy… It was advertised as a “non technical” walk in the snow with a certified guide from an agency we and many others trusted. Iwas starting to think that it was considered “non technical” just because we didn`t actually use the amount of gear you would use in a technical climb. I clutched my iceaxe tighter and double backed by harness. Ok. Ready to go.
I was last, tied behind Arones and Ed. The first bit was steep and we already used our ice axes in the snow, up and over the terminus of the glacier and onto an endless spread of rolling snow hills. It was too dark to even see our Summit goal. Stars spangled the sky, but it wasn´t the time or place to stargaze. We slogged through the thick snow one step at a time, our crampons gripping the soft and steep patches well. The path was obvious; itseems as if there hadn´t been a recent snowfall because tracks from many climbers extended into the distance like a trail.
We climbed hill after hill after hill after hill. I kept looking ahead into the darkness and seeing blinking lights. Yes! Stars! We`ve finally made it over the last hill! But no, it was always the headlamps of the teams ahead and above us, starlike against the pitchblack snow.
The whole time I kept thinking about Into Thin Air and other mountaineering books I´ve read. The knowlege I`ve gotten from reading those wasthe only reason I half knew what to expect on the trip; our guide was not exactly the type to explain details and hold your hand. I was trying not to think about Touching the Void. I knew the saga had occured on a mountain very, very nearby. In the famous (and 100% true) story turned documentary style film, two climbers (Joe Simpson and Simon Yates) were attempting a first ascent of the West Face of 21,000 ft. Siula Grande, part of the Cordillera Huaywash (the Cordillera just south of the Cordillera Blanca.)
They had just reached the peak when Simpson fell off an iceledge, breaking his leg. Still attatched to Yates by rope but unable to communicate the problem, Yates attempted to lower Simpson to safety, not realizing that he was dangling in thin air. Darkness fell and lest he freeze to death himself, Yates cut thte rope, suspecting he had just effectively killed his friend. Simpson plunged down and fell into a cravasse while Yates continued his descent. Miraculously, Simpson survived and was even able to clmb up and out of the cravasse, even crawl all the way back to basecamp with a broken leg and frostbite. He arrived as Yates, consumed by guilt, sat burning Simpson`s clothes. Convinced his friend was dead, Yates had planned to leave in only a matter of hours.
On our climb, I didn´t see any ledges or cravasses. I didn`t see any avalanche bound cliffs or gigantic dangling icicles. At the time, I was releived. It really is just a hike up a snowy hill! It didn`t cross my mind that maybe I didn`t see any of that because I litterally couldn`t see. Everything was black but the ground beneath my feet and Ed`s red coat ahead.
We stopped a couple times to snack on oreos, but basically pushed on. We were moving much faster than each of the other groups, strong men who I had assumed were serious mountaineers the day before. One by one, we passed them. Each time we would be stuck beind a line of three or four and our place would suddenly be reduced to ten steps, pause. Ten steps, pause. Ed would turn and give me his classic look of frustration. I would laugh and roll myeyes. We would politely suggest to Arones that we pass. Then we´d run on by.
Ed and I were both feeling really strong. Stronger than our guide. About halfway up, around 4:30, he vomited several times. I didn`t actually see it happen, for which I`m grateful. We were far above 5,000 meters and I wasn`t feeling any altitude sickness, just fatigue. It wasn`t until we were about a half an hour away that my heart hegan to pound harder and the going got tougher. We were in front- we had started last and had passed every climber on the mountain. We had seen at least three men turn around long before the top. We had just seen a girl collapse in the snow.
It was about 6 and the sky was just starting to lighten. I could see rays appearing over the ridge beyond- on either side of the ridge sat the two summits of Vallunaraju; the North and the South. They rose like the two humps on a camel`s back, mirror images of each other. We got to the ridge. We were to climb to the summit on the left, the slightly more rounded.
There was a short verticle climb to get oto the left hump. Jabbing my ice axe into the hard snow and kicking straight forward with my crampons, I thought of Krakaur´s ice climbing articles I`d read and tried not to think about the drop below. I could hear Arones´s voice from below in his slurred accent, "slowly, slowly!" Thanks for the advice, hombre. He was lucky I wasn`t completely clueless about this stuff despite having never put crampons on my feet beforethat day. Otherwise I`d be falling and pulling him right down with me.
At the top of that climb, my energy was gone. I used the excuse of taking pictures to to rest. My water was frozen. Although we were far ahead of everyone else, Ed was very much in the competetive mindset and acted as my cheerleader. The next slope was maybe a fifty degree slope and walkable with crampons, but I couldn`t quite manage and crawled. "Stand up! Come on! We only have a tiny bit to go!" I was frustrated at him and thankful at the same time. I stood up. I was so, so tired. The wind blasted us and every couple steps we had to hunker down lest we be blown off the cliff. The summit was so close. So close, yet so far away, and each step was an incredible effort.
All arond us, the sun rose above the surrounding peaks and bathed the snowcaps in a dusty pink. Orange light rimmed the rhorizon. The curves and contours of the ridges around us revealed themselves in sharp blue contrast. The sky began to bleed upwards in a brilliant turquoise. Every couple steps, my leg sank completely in the snow and I fell forward, dragged by the rope. I was angry. "I`m trying my best you guys!" I screamed. The sky`s blue deepend. The wind howled. And suddenly- we made it! The summit! 5,686 meters!
We summited at 6:30 AM, after 3.5 hours of climbing; estimated to take 6 hours, 4 if you`re fast. Ed jabbed his ice axe into thesnow like a flag; I collapsed onto the ground and started to cry. I felt exactly like I do after running a 4090 meter race. I lay there, without speaking, heaving, while the others tried to figure out if I was ok or not. I drank some ice and was ok. I stood up and we snapped some pictures. It didn`t feel real. We jumped about and yelled and took in the view until we saw the next team approaching the vertical section, then scooted out. Time to go almost 1,000 meters back down.
We got to the bottom of the verticle section and I looked upto see climbers atop the monstrous ice hill in a patch of light; the wind blew swirls of snow off of the top; everything was a shade of blue. Arones encouraged us to continue on down because we were in a section dangerous during the day. Now with the light I could see why. To our left, layer upon layer of snow and ice rose hundreds of meters into the sky and an overhanging ledge dripped with fifty foot icicles sharp as knives. In front of us, the endless hills revealed themselves to be floating among snow freckled with holes and cravasses. Ok, let`s get this over with.
We downclimbed as quickly as we could without being too hasty until we reached a safer section and ate some much needed food. In total our descent didn`t take more then a couple hours. As we neared the bottom, my fatigue began to catch up with me. We stumbled along; I wished I had skis. I realized that, despite the wind, we had been extremely lucky with the weather. The dry seaon really was coming along. Our wet day at Lago Churup must have been one of the last really rainy days, and it hadn`t rained since Night 2 on Santa Cruz.
Finally we reached the end of the glacier. It took forever to get my crampons, gaters and harness off. We still had to rock climb down. We had just conquered an almost 6,000 meter mountain, the view was breathtaking, and all I wanted to do was go to sleep. Actually, I knew acutely that I had never had to sleep, eat and drink so badly all at once in my life.When we finally reached Campo Morena, I did all of those except sleep. I had a bit of a headache, but mostly I was just really, really tired. Arones boiled us water for tea, and Ed and I packed up and set down the tent. As much as I wanted to go right to sleep, I knew we still had 900 meters of hill to descend before we could get picked up and sleep in the van.
The walk down the hill was horrible. It seemed much steeper than I`d remembered. It was beautiful- sparkling emerald grass blinking with dew,wildflowers, bubbling nrooks and icicle waterfalls; the weather was ideal, the sky as blue as can be, the surrounding mountains gleaming. But I was pissed. I was overheating in the strengthening sun. I kept slipping on mud and ice and falling down the hill. It was around 11 and we had been awake for 10 hours already.
When the van picked us up around 1, all I wanted to do was sleep, but the road was so bumpy that sleeping was absoutey impossible. We were dropped off at the tour agency and I dumped my filthy borrowed gear on thefloor and we stumbled back to the hostel. I had already reserved a room for myself tha night; Ed was taking the night bus to Lima to meet his sister at the airport. We grabbed our stuff from the storage room and packed, took showers, and napped. It was a difficult evening.
I should have slept but I wanted to spend some tiem with Ed before he had to leave me for four days or something crazy like that (it turned out to be only about 2 days). We had been traveling together for the last 6 weeks. We had climbed sand dunes and mountains together, built houses an jacked boats together, lost at beerpong together. But I couldn`t leave Huaraz just yet. I`d had three little friends locked up and waiting on me for five months: My two climbings shoes and my harness.