Our big goal on this trip to Peru was to attempt the North East ridge on Huascaran Norte. We were psyched to be finally packing our gear for this trip into the mountains. Our packs this time round would be lighter than our last trip into the mountains. But we were a bit bummed when then weighed in at around 25kg. I guess there is only so much weight you can shave off.
We started with an early breaky in Huaraz, and then got on a collectivo up the valley. This hour long collectivo ride ended up costing us 5 soles each, about $2. We got out at Yungay, a town with a fascinating history. In 1970 a huge earthquake struck Peru killing 70,000 people, this is the worst earthquake to hit the western hemisphere. Yungay, which is nestled immediately beneath the huge south faces of Huascaran Norte and Sur, was completely destroyed when a huge section of Huascaran Norte fell from the mountain. It created a huge landslide and totally covered Yungay, killing all 18,000 inhabitants. 200 people survived by fleeing to a cemetary high on the other of the city.
We left Yungay in a taxi and headed into the Llanganuco Valley. With two beautiful alpine lakes and a cirque of amazing mountains surrounding, this is a pretty magical place. We thought we on track for a good start, getting dropped of at 9am, however we had been dropped off in the wrong spot and inadvertently added and extra 2 hours walk and 400m vertical gain to the day. Joy.
This first day turned out to be one of the most brutal days i’ve had in the outdoors. We wern’t anywhere near as acclimatised as we had hoped and we were moving SLOW. In total we gained about 1,400m and felt every kilo of our pack the whole way. We finally stopped walking about 8pm and set up our bivy tent on an exposed, windy rock slab.
We had to keep to a pretty strict schedule on this climb if we wanted to succeed. The route involved 2.5km of ridge climbing, with 1,500m of vertical gain, it chimes in at an ED1 so it would be the hardest thing we have tried in the mountains by a long way. We had left ourselves 3 days to climb it and a day to descend. So our second day was the only day we had some leeway to sloth about a little. And luckily so, we were knackered. We scoped out the approach to the ridge and decided the variant start which is described in the guidebook looked too dangerous to approach. The glacier we needed to cross looked way too cut up to get to the bottom of the face, although it did look like an easy way to gain the ridge, if you could make it across the glacier.
Instead we took a line which was closer to the original ascent of the ridge. We headed straight from our bivy ascending snow slopes, interspersed with rock slabs. We had to do one pitch of proper rock climbing, which was fun, no gear till after the crux… And then we made it to a bivy not far below the crest of the ridge on a nice snow slope.
The next morning we began moving out about 6am and ascended to the crest of the ridge very quickly. We were unroped and scrambled up loose rock and were looking up the line of the ridge in awe. Everything looks very foreshortened as you are looking directly along the ridge. In the back of our mind we had to keep reminding ourselves that it was actually 2.5km of climbing to cover, stop staring and start climbing.
We had set ourselves points we needed to reach on each day, if we didn’t then we had to bail. So the pressure was on the get moving and cover some ground. It wasn’t long till our decision to gain the ridge early came back to bite us. This first section of the ridge was peppered with gendarmes (rock towers), so we ended up having to traverse through some gnarly mixed climbing down below the northern side of the ridge. We had to pitch everything, and the nature of the rock (epic choss) meant we were climbing pretty slow. There were some wild leads down below the ridge crest until finally we were able to gain the ridge again and move more quickly on some snow slopes.
We simul-climbed along the ridge for another few hours and the altitude seemed to be really taking a toll. We felt like we had the brakes on. The less techincal the ground the more inclined you are to try to pump out some metres and really make up ground. Unfortunately that sends your heart rate sky rocketing and you’re forced to stop to let it calm down.
Around 4pm we started trying to scope spots along the ridge for a bivy. We found a spot that was amazingly exposed and very cool. About 1.5 by 2 m on a gently sloping rock pillar. We couldn’t pitch the tent but could use it as a two person bivy bag. With a 200m sheer drop on 3 sides we stayed tied in all night.
While brewing up and “cooking” dinner (already formed a great dislike of back country meals, lack of apetite at altitude didn’t help though) we discussed our situation. We were nowhere near the point of the ridge we needed to be to continue, we were getting spanked by the altitude and moving too slow. We really didn’t want to admit it but we porobably should bail tomorrow. Damn it.
I awoke to one of the most amazing sights i’ve seen in the mountains. Being a relatively warm night, I slept with my head out of the bivy bag. The very first sight upon opening eyes was an amazing panorama of mountains just begining to get bathed in morning sun. The summits of the higher peaks glistening brightly. A grin came across my face as I recall the usual view when I wake up at home is my dog staring back at me, a split second before she licks my face. Awesome, what a position, I roll over and look down the sheer 200m drop my head head is resting above. Waking up here gives me some solace, the trip was still worthwhile even though we have to bail without a summit.
After getting ourselves together we begin the day with three full length raps off our bed pillar. We just make the glacier, landing on the right side of the bergschrund with rope stretch. We contiue down the steep glacier, peppered with large ice cliffs and deep crevasses, back tracking once or twice. We reach the rock slabs and begin descending and descending and descending. Our thighs begin to burn and knees are starting to pound, then we hit scree, endless, endless scree. Joy. At least there is plenty of water.
Our descent takes us down an ever narrowing gulley, which the water is funnelling into as well. We continue with blind faith hoping it’s the right way until we find ourselves atop a waterfall, great. With no other option we harness up, sling the biggest looking boulder and rap down the waterfall. Sweet, get in a bit of canyoning too! The gulley continues down and down, and we arrive at our second waterfall, this one is bigger and it’s about an hour before dark now. We rap, get soaked, and continue down without saying much. Not having fun anymore. We arrive at a clearing and pitch camp about 8pm, with cows.
The next day we experience the amazing hospitality of the local 70 year old national parks ranger. He makes us coffee and gives us bread and we share photos, energy gels and have a great spanglish conversation about all things under the sun. We then take one of the scariest car trips I have every been in back to Yungay and make our way to Huaraz in a collectivo. Phew what a trip.