The Altitude Junkies
For most people who are even beginning to bud into the world of high altitude climbing, Altitude Junkies and its owner, Phil Crampton, has probably blipped onto their radar. Somehow the name is often mentioned here and there, never really being in the direct spotlight, but always with an air of prestige and hardcore-ness. Somebody over here would mention that they are always the fastest up the mountain. You would read over there that Phil saved somebody from dying in a high camp. Somebody elsewhere would say that everybody on the team are just friends and that the company is not even a guiding service to begin with. Who are these people?
In a way, to me, they felt like an ultra-exclusive climbing club that I would probably never be part of unless I did something really awesome in the climbing world and also got recognized to be a cool personality that could fit in with the other awesome/cool people in the club. That is a pretty long shot for a non-sponsored climber like me whose personality is only 98% cool. To me, it was a pipe dream to join that club. While I’m at it, maybe Conrad Anker could guide me up a peak while Jimmy Chin takes photos of me too. In the meanwhile, I’d relegate myself to international expeditions with the RMIs and Jagged Globes of the climbing world.
The search for the plan
When November rolls around, I usually find myself itching to climb. Unfortunately, November is a horrible time to climb in the Cascades, and scratching that itch means doing hot yoga until my skin peels and doing cardio that my joins are busted, all while planning a summer expedition. I was relatively certain that I wanted to go to Alpamayo or Denali in the upcoming summer. I hit up my two expedition partners, Matt and Sid. We had all already climbed Kilimanjaro and Elbrus together, and even though I don’t really plan on completing the 7 Summits, climbing Denali together would be a nice experience. We get along as a group really well and I would not have a problem spending 3 weeks in a tent with them. However, Sid was biking across the USA, and Matt was pretty focused on an upcoming Aconcagua climb, a few races, work, and life in general, so it did not look like Denali was going to happen. We also planned to go guideless with me leading the climb, and to be honest, I did not feel 100% comfortable with the logistics at that point. Peru it was!
At that point, most my international climbs were done through Jagged Globe, so they were my go-to. I have so far liked their style and had made good friends on past trips. My hesitation on going with them is that they like to run their trips very long for acclimatization periods, and after a few high altitude stints, I was fairly certain I did not need 3 weeks to climb a single 6000m peak. I had also been doing a bunch of personal (non-guided) and private guided climbs over the past year rather than big group climbs, and was noticing that the more challenging the peak, the significantly more beneficial it was to be with a tighter honed in group. On the other hand, having a personal guide for 2-3 weeks in a foreign country could get pretty boring if we did not jive well. I did not really know what to search for, so I hit the Google machine.
After a few weeks of aimless nighttime Googling, and talking to a number of companies I did not feel stoked about climbing with, I finally made my way to something like page 10 of the search results and came across an outdated archived page on Altitude Junkie’s Alpamayo trip. I was actually surprised to see that the company had a website altogether, as I really thought it was more of a “climbing club”. I navigated to the home page and saw that they only listed 4 total expeditions per year: Makalu, Dhaulagiri, Cholatse, and “Cordillera Blanca”. The first 3 are pretty hardcore, so I expected the last one to be equally hardcore. To my surprise, the Cordillera Blanca climb was just a relatively straightforward Ishinca Valley based climb of Urus Este, Ishinca, and Tocllaraju. Okay, unexpectedly easy climbs – easier than I wanted. But hey, this could be my opportunity in with the club, I thought. The dates were also perfectly scheduled between two birthdays that I wanted to be back home for. I emailed the contact info on the site.
Getting to know you
A few days later I got an email from Phil’s wife, Trish, telling me that Phil was currently on Makalu and would be for a few more weeks. He would get back to me once he was back in Kathmandu or New York. To me, that sounded like a soft rejection from the club. I continued searching for another operator.
To my surprise, Phil did end up emailing me a few weeks later from Kathmandu, filled me in on a little bit of their completed Makalu expedition, and told me that he would like to speak with me over the phone before making a decision on the Ishinca Valley expedition. Getting on the phone with Phil was a nice surprise for me; Phil is actually a really open and talkative guy who is so obviously passionate about alpinism, but also about connecting with people. We ended up speaking for a good 45 minutes. He informed me that he chooses his teams mostly based on personality, and figures that anybody calling him should know whether or not they can handle themselves on a mountain. He also made it absolutely clear that he does not consider himself a guide or his trips to be guided. His approach to expeditions really suited what I thought would be ideal for me, so I confirmed my spot. I would be joining with 3 other folks from Nebraska, one of them having a pretty solid climbing resume. Phil also had a past client and friend who would be tagging along with his own group of friends.
He ended our first call with “Chris, if you have any questions about Peru, gear, or anything, let me know. I really enjoy talking about that stuff!”. We indeed continued chatting over the next few months, and by the time I was stepping on the airplane, I felt like we were already buddies.
“So like in the movie”
It’s interesting, because as soon as I step onto the airplane, all of the negative feelings about leaving on an expedition wash away – I am all in. From prior emails, I knew that I would be meeting Steve and Doug at the airport in Houston, and then flying making our way to Lima from there. Richard, the most accomplished of the group, was already in Peru acclimatizing on Machu Picchu. Steve and I traded texts once we both landed, and we ended up meeting at Bubba Gump Shrimp. I had always wanted to go to Bubba Gump Shrimp, so why not start off the expedition with it! Doug was unfortunately slightly dying from food poisoning at the gate, and wanted to try to sleep it off. That made me a little worried, as I know how important good hydration is for me in acclimatization.
A few hours later we touched down in Lima, around midnight. We deplaned and went to go collect our bags. Doug seemed like he was no longer dying once we landed, which was a big positive. We went to go collect our bags. While Steve and I were pulling our duffels off the bag collection, we had an older Peruvian woman approach us and ask what we were planning to do while in Peru. I guess we stood out with our large orange duffle bags. We told her that we were mountain climbers.
Woman: “So like in the movie?”
Me: “..What movie?”
Woman: “Touching The Void.”
Me: “Hopefully not like that.”
Woman: “That happened here you know. If they make a movie about you I can say I met you.”
I was later told that this woman was maybe a witch and possibly put a curse on our expedition. I try to live as a really good human, so I guess those karma points were a good investment. Maybe the curse was specifically directed towards getting to our hotel, because that was a massive cluster-f***. We quickly learned that very few people spoke English, and Doug learned very quickly that speaking English slower and louder does not translate it to Spanish. About an hour later after standing outside in the rain, we finally figured out how to get the van ride that we had paid for inside the airport. Apparently you do not wait in the zone called “waiting zone” for your van. Only idiots stand there. Once getting in our van, our van driver was probably one of the most dangerous elements of the expedition. He literally fell asleep while driving on the highway multiple times. Once we arrived to our hotel, he insisted on a tip. Steve gave him a few bucks, which Doug and I opposed.
We got to the hotel and fell right asleep. The following day was pretty much a food fest. Lima has an absolutely fantastic food scene. We managed to score a table in the bar at Rafael’s, which really blew me away. I noted that if I made it through this whole thing, I may need to come back to Lima on a food trip with my family. Normally when on climbing expeditions I like to keep the down days to a minimum. I would have normally skipped out on the first day like this and flown in a day later, but getting to know the people on the team was time well spent.
Off to Huarez
Very early in the morning, Phil showed up with a private van and we were off to Huaraz. This driver did not fall asleep even once on the long drive to Huarez. Phil’s friend and his two compadres were joining us on the van ride, which was a nice addition to our group. We would end up spending a lot of time with them over the next couple weeks.
We would spend 3 nights in Huarez acclimatizing and running a few logistical errands. I needed to meet Jen from Skyline to finalize our plans for Artesonraju as well. Steve, being an avid bike racer, managed to set up a mountain biking day for the group with a little company right beside our hotel, La Casa de Zalera. He also brought along a bunch of bike parts for the owner from the USA that were apparently very hard to get out in Huarez. I figured I’ve biked before, so I could hang. Never had I been so wrong about anything in my life. Mountain biking is scary as f***. The plan was to do it the following day again, but I bailed and went for a jog instead. Steve actually loved the biking so much that he set up a deal with the owner for him to bike down from Huarez to the coast, where he could get picked up by van and be driven to Lima after the climbs where done. It sounded epic, but my sights were on climbing.
La Casa de Zalera is filled with climbers, which in a way attracts even more climbers. We met a ton of climbers out there, from beginners to sponsored athletes. Phil and I spent a lot of time hanging out in the common areas chatting and him trying to convince me to have a glass of wine with him. I know my body hates alcohol while acclimatizing, so I stayed dry.
The Ishinca Valley
Making it up to the Ishinca Valley hut was pretty undramatic. Phil and Richard moved pretty quickly. Phil lives in a permanently acclimatized state, and Richard had just spent a few days already at higher altitudes. Doug was still feeling a bit slow from the food poisoning it seemed, and Steve, being super fit but also super nice, went slow I suspect to keep us company. Joe, Dave, and Graham were far behind us because they spent some time dealing with the horse baggage transport guy. I did not feel very much need to push myself, as I knew we would be climbing Urus Este early the following morning, so I hung around in the back. Once we got to the hut, we had the option of staying in the big shared room with probably around 20 bunks, or staying in a room with only 4 bunks. Phil apparently hates sharing rooms with other climbing parties, so he pushed to take the room with 4 bunks while he would sleep on the ground. He regretted that. After unpacking and getting a bit of food in, we stepped outside to review some rope and climbing techniques. Richard and I were to be on one rope, and Phil, Doug, and Steve, would be on the other. All of the other guys had mostly climbed Himalyan expedition style, with fixed lines and jumars, so Phil and I took the leads of our separate ropes. The plan was not to climb in conjunction, so as soon as we took off, rope teams would climb independently. Phil is indeed not a guide. Richard does have a whole lot of mountain experience, so I felt totally comfortable being linked up with him for the next few days.
The next morning, around 2am, we woke up, had breakfast, geared up, and shot off to climb Urus Este. The climb itself was relatively undramatic. Unfortunately, Graham from our parallel team decided to retire into the middle of the climb. We came across him sitting on a rock by himself in the middle of a steep snow slope. The weather was great, and it looked like he was sunbathing by himself. He told us that he was not mentally feeling good about the climb, and that he would just link up with Joe and Dave on their way down. Richard and I were not 100% comfortable with leaving our new friend stranded on a rock in the middle of a 5000m peak, but it was not our call to make. We were moving a little more slowly than we would like, but we summited not too long after, and with the weather being fantastic and it still early in the day, we hung out up there for a little bit. Richard even managed to pull off a phone call to his wife. Graham was no longer on the rock on our way down, so we felt good about that too. We caught up with Phil, Doug, and Steve at the top of the moraine. I had the feeling that Doug had been pushing a little too hard trying to keep up with Phil and Steve, and later in the evening I mentioned to him that he should consider taking it easier on the pace. Doug is a fit individual, and being 60 and still doing these sorts of things is quite impressive. He is also the newest to high altitude alpinism, so I thought the advice would be appropriate. The climb of Urus Este was all around a really fun time for me personally, and was a great start to the trip.
The following day we geared up for Ishinca in the same fashion and took off again. Phil really wanted to get in front of a huge and obviously underprepared German team, as he was worried about the s***-show that they may cause above us. Richard and I both agreed that we would take a slow pace and go easy, and if the German team was indeed a s***-show, we would just hold our distance behind. Richard had spent months of his life moving slowly on 8000m peaks, so one more long day was not going to kill him. Although I have not had that same experience, I’ve had my fair share of long days too, and agreed that being behind a slow team would not put me out.
Richard and I did end up catching up to the Germans, and it was indeed a s***-show. We hoped to pass them while they switched to glacier travel mode, but there were so many of them that it was an impossibility to be faster than them all. A few of them actually turned back because they forgot crampons or ice axes. Every time we did pass them, their guides would run ahead of us and seemingly intentionally slow us down until their own team could catch back up. I hate busy mountains. We just went slow and enjoyed the slog. We kept at a conversational pace and just chatted the whole time. Richard is a super interesting guy, not just in climbing, but also on a personal level. Ishinca proved to be more of a long walk than a “climb”, per se. I would not choose to do it again, but I cannot deny that it was super scenic.
While we were climbing Ishinca, Joe and Dave decided to take advantage of what was said to be a closing weather window and shoot for Tocllaraju. They came back looking pretty exhausted. Joe, the more experience but quieter one said, “It was hard”. Dave, the less experienced but more talkative one said that it was at their limit, and that a short but icy pitch close to the summit didn’t allow them to the top. This was not the first time I heard this around the hut, and my slight anxiety of leading an alpine ice pitch at 6000m became real anxiety. I told Phil that I did not feel comfortable leading that, and that I would need some assistance. Phil already provisioned the cost of hiring a guide on the spot, which we had discussed earlier. He told me that he was certain that I could lead it, and repeated the sentiment that Jenn had back in Huarez about the two sponsored climbers saying that Arteson is unclimbable. Everybody who doesn’t summit has a story about epic difficulties. However, if I still did not feel good about it, he would grab a guide from camp. A few hours later, we had a guide, Alexando, join us from another guided party to lead this pitch for me and Richard.
I later realized that this pitch was totally un-epic, and something I could have easily lead. However, half way through the night, my worries about Doug did come to fruition. He was moving slow, too slow. He was burning out. And from the looks of it, he was not very far from being burnt out completely. Our team began moving at a snail’s pace. The bad news was that it was 4:00am on the shoulder of one of the windiest mountains on the range, and we were freezing. I had literally never been so cold in my life – so much that I was experiencing brain freeze just from inhaling in the cold air. Common sun, rise! Please! We decided that we could not keep going this way and that Doug could not continue.
We knew that 4 people on a rope would be a bad idea on the pitch above, so 3 would have to turn back. Phil, Doug, and somebody else. Doug suggested that he go back himself, but everybody quickly shot down that decision. Not only is the base of the mountain a rat maze, but the flaks are littered with huge crevasses. Doug then suggested that he bunker up in the cold and wait for us to come back and get him. This was a bad idea. For whatever reason, the team considered it for a longer moment than I was comfortable with. I knew that if they said yes, I would have to rope up with him and take him back down. It was cold enough and Doug was exhausted enough that I was certain that if we left him there, his likelihood from him to make it back in one piece was slim. I did not want to volunteer first though, because I knew everybody would take me up on it in a heartbeat. Heck, I just met him a few days ago, these guys are his longtime friends.
Richard volunteered to go back, saying that he also felt a little less motivated than usual, and that with all the peaks under his belt, a summit here would be more meaningful to me and Steve. I’ll take it! Steve swapped into position on the rope with me and Alexando, and we began moving fast, mostly to warm back up. Steve, being super fit, really paced the team. The sun came up and we really started moving quickly, passing a couple other teams that we did not even know were attempting the mountain. Most people attempt from a high camp rather than the hut, so we had no clue how many people were actually up here when we began. We cruised through the rest of the climb, with the technical section really not deserving the D+ that it has been assigned. We shared a rappel with a Swiss team off the summit, where I had the pleasure of rappelling into a bergschrund. The weather was nice, we were warm, it was still early in the day, and we had summited. Our spirits were infinitely higher than just a few hours ago. After making it back to the moraine where the trail was obvious, Alexando politely excused himself to run back down so he could catch his ride to Huarez. We thanked him and enjoyed our casual walk back.
On to the next one!
We made it back to the hut from Tocllaraju, the last of our 3 climbs. I quickly whipped up a protein shake and ate lunch. Steve crashed and we did not see him get out of bed until later in the evening. The Altitude Junkies climbs were officially over.
We still had an extra contingency day that we did not expend, and the three guys really wanted to get back down to Huarez, so they took off the next morning. Phil and I had discussed possibly doing one more small climb if we felt good and the weather participated, so we stayed in the hut. The three guys ended up getting massive that night diarrhea in Huarez, so Phil and I were glad that we stayed put. We did not find the motivation to climb another peak, so we just hung out and drank wine. With me staying dry up until this point, I think Phil saw me drinking wine with him as a larger accomplishment than climbing any of the peaks though.
Once back down, we had one last dinner and said our goodbyes. It was a classically fun mountaineering trip.