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To Burro or not to Burro--Chacraraju Este

Photo by David Jensen

I only had 18 days in Peru, and I wanted to get after it. High altitude climbing demands patience and perseverance, but I was under a time constraint.

Alik and I devised a high-speed acclimatization action plan that was as follows: Spend two days in Huaraz getting used to 3000m, then spend a week in the mountains climbing Quiteraju and Alpamayo with two nights above 5000m, then rest for two days in Huaraz, then head back into the mountains to send. It would be a gruelling process, and we were both concerned that it might not be enough. Overall the acclimatisation was successful though, and most importantly fun. You do an awful lot of hanging out while you wait for your body to adjust. It is good that spending time in that mountain range is incredible regardless of what you do.

Alpamayo as seen from Quiteraju

After acclimatising we only spent a day and a half recovering in Huaraz before we went back. We both soon recognized that it wasn’t enough. Huaraz is a sweet place to kick back, and a great place to refuel the body, but we were both frothing to get back out there. To get to the face, we scrambled over the SE ridge of Chacaraju Este from Lago 69. We then took a rest day camping under the face. This was prudent as it allowed us to watch the face for a full 24 hours before going for it, but it was hot and the radiation made it less restful than we had hoped. The temperature swings in the Cordillera of Peru are wild, one moment you’re a useless shivering down puff ball, the next you’re a dried raisin with your tongue glued to the back of your throat. The transition hours are the most comfortable and the most beautiful times of day. We made sure we were always climbing at these times.

It was during the hot time of day that we discussed bailing. We both felt insufficiently acclimatised and we were intimidated. The headwall towered over us, flanked by toothy seracs and jagged cliffbands. Our line wandered under billowing snow mushrooms and crossed rock stained slopes. We would have to move quickly to be safe, and this route was going to be hard - maybe very hard. Easier options nearby promised the security of the known, so why not take one of those? They were close, and we were good enough to be up and down them in a day.

But that was exactly it. We weren’t sitting under the East face of Chacaraju Este to climb something we knew we could climb. As climbers, we chase our lofty goals because of the battle we must undergo to attain them. We chase them for the pain we must endure, and the willpower required to succeed. How else do you know what you are truly capable of? How else do you get a sense of what you can be capable of? A sense of your potential as a human being? When the line is walked, Alpine climbing gives you a glimpse of who you truly are and who you can be. The situation becomes dangerous if you take this philosophy too far and lose control. The mountains are not a place to lose control.

Alik at the top of the first pitch of the headwall

We went for it and we charged. We climbed to the base of the headwall overnight in 12 hours. I lead the first block negotiating the first cliff band in the dark, and Alik lead next, finding a long Rockies style traverse to negotiate the central cliff band at sunrise. This traverse soon became dubbed the ‘reach around traverse’ and was the key that we needed to unlock access to the headwall. Both blocks proved easier than anticipated, and we were handling the thin air well. We motored and It felt good. But then the sun came out and baked us to the face. Like lazy flies we sat there as the face started to fall apart. Ice was delaminating and falling from the summit mushrooms above. The falling ice and rock would clear the steep headwall and explode on our tracks below. We couldn’t climb in this. Eventually we chopped a platform for the tent in a fin of snow. We planned to fix the first headwall pitch once the face cooled off, and fire the rest of the route the next day.

Alik lead off beautifully and I followed. 60m of delicate alpine ice, stemming, palming swinging and scratching. Then I climbed through onto the crux pitch of the route. I traversed right and up, opting to free climb the runout face as opposed to climbing the steep corner that would have gone easily using aid techniques. I hoped that the features would provide security for my front points. The features grew thin and I was soon tearing off my gloves so that I could crimp the cold stone. Even 5.10 feels rather wild when your belayer is out of sight and you are runout at 5800m wearing a pack, double boots, and crampons. I methodically tic-tacked my way up the steep face. The rock was good, the exposure was exhilarating, and the climbing was awesome! The face soon kicked up into an overhang and gear appeared. I plugged the crack full, let my oxygen levels catch up, pulled the tools out and cranked the roof pulling over onto a ledge. Yelled a quick “boooyah” and put Alik on belay. The steepest part of the headwall was done!

I contemplate the overhangs of the crux pitch ahead

We simbulclimbed easier mixed terrain to a groove in the upper part of the headwall. Warming from recent years has left this section of the route with much less ice leaving the rock loose and dangerous. It was also hot again. I easily kicked off a body sized pillar checking to see how bad the delamination was, we couldn’t climb the ice anymore, but we needed to climb ice to get to the summit. Alik lead a delicate pitch of impeccably loose rock on the side of the gully before we decided to stop, chill, chop some chairs, and melt some water while we waited for the route to freeze again. It was amazing how the temperature swings would bring the mountain to life. Within a few hours of waiting in the shade everything had cracked down tight. The ice was climbable again, and Alik took off like a rocket.

We topped out at sunset. and prepared for our descent, which was more than 20 rappels down the south face to the most tourist filled lake in Huaraz. Soon we were back in town eating and eating and eating. We added our route to the red book in the guides office and within ours I was on the bus on my way back to Lima and then Canada. It was a smash and grab mission at its finest!

Some tips if you go:

If you’re fast enough, climb the classic routes like Quiteraju and Alpamayo in the afternoons. In the dry season the afternoons are usually the only cloudy time of day. You avoid the people, avoid the burning sun, and you get clear skies for the sunsets on top.

Be wary of your basecamp items when you head into the high mountains, especially at popular basecamps. An arriero (donkey driver), pinched our Bora 65L basecamp backpack, with our basecamp luxuries inside. My theory is that he couldn’t resist the swivel hip belt, perfect for dancing salsa. We spent the rest of the trip with everything yard-saled on the outside of our Alpha FL 45L’s. Its surprising how much stuff you can fit on those things!

Altitude kills your appetite. Ramen noodles were amazing sustenance up high and are useful to have a lot of. It gets to be pretty hard to force food down. Freeze dried meals did not appeal to the appetite very much. Polenta was another winner.

Spot the pack

The New Zealand alpine team wrote a cool report on their trip last year. Its definitely worth checking out the writing on their trip. They’ve got a useful gear list in there as well.

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