Technical Climb Info:
- Mountain: Artesonraju
- Elevation: 6,025 m
- Route: North Ridge/Face
- Length: 1,100m
- Grade: D+ (difficile / difficult)*, AI4-5
*I personally disagree with the grade given to this route. The climbing itself is not higher than a D, but there are significant objective risks once on the high ridge. If one does not make it through the entirety of the summit ridge, they will probably call this a D, but the additional objective hazards we faced to get to the top could easily make it higher.
Initially when planning my first Cordillera Blanca trip, like probably many others, I had the target of climbing Alpamyo. It’s a beautiful peak with a reasonably moderate route to the top. Logistics should be easy with plenty of companies running up and down the peak. However, in the back of my mind, I had always been more drawn to Aresonraju. I don’t actually know when it first got planted in my mind, but it was stuck in there. As I searched for an operator to support an Alpamayo climb, I couldn’t help but feel that I was selling my aspirations a little bit short.
I booked my initial climbs in the Cordillera Blanca with Phil Crampton and the Altitude Junkies. It would be a pretty simple Ishinca Valley trip, but that would be my first climb with them, and also my first climbs in the Cordillera Blanca. I took it as a good chance to get to know Phil Crampton because I do have some Himalayan aspirations that I knew he could play a roll in. Phil and I really hit it off over the phone while back in Seattle, and I expressed to him my interests and concerns about climbing Artesonraju.
Artesonraju does have the unfortunate reputation of being difficult to get up – especially on the upper ridge, and deadly to some who fail. Basically, I wanted to have a solid attempt on the mountain, but I did not want to die doing it.
Phil recommended I ask for his buddy “Nacho” from the Skyline Adventure School – a Peruvian climbing school based in Huarez, owned by Jenn and Tedd Hrinkevich, a couple of Pennsylvania natives. I had already been independently talking to them about climbing in the area, so Phil’s recommendation pretty much locked the company in. When I decided to pivot the plans from Alpamayo to Artesonraju, I called up Jenn and expressed my worries to her.
“I want your best guide. And I want them to have kids.”
Why the thing about kids? I don’t have kids personally. But I wanted to be roped to somebody who would be 110% motivated to not die.
Jenn said that she had the perfect person for the job, a guy named “Nacho” – the same guy who Phil recommended. (Ignacio “Nacho” Espinosa Andrade, IFMGA, and I ended up becoming friends as well and continue to climb together.) We kept the logistics loose in case conditions changed, but had our dates locked in.
Knowing that I would be climbing something as challenging and potentially objectively dangerous made leaving from home to Peru quite difficult for me, mentally at least. Artesonraju was posed to be my biggest alpine challenge yet. Not only would it be one of the highest mountains I would have ever climbed, but it would also be the most technically challenging I have attempted at that altitude. I had been yet to climb a mountain that had built a reputation of being dangerous and difficult at the same time. A lot of things whiz through the mind, and none of them positive, when facing with something like that. I don’t think I properly slept for the prior couple weeks.
Upon arriving to Huarez, Phil and I spent a lot of time hanging out on the balcony of La Casa de Zalera. We met a duo of sponsored climbers who were on their way out who had actually just a couple weeks earlier attempted the same route I had planned to climb on Artesonraju. They told me that it was impossible, nobody was getting up it this year, just like last year, and that it was a big and dangerous waste of time. Damn. Maybe it’s time to switch gears.
My anxiety about the climb had already been pretty high, so I had already been chatting with Jenn about pivoting our climb to possibly going for Alpamayo and Quitaraju, so when meeting with her later in the evening, I told her that I wanted to pull the trigger on the switch. She told me not to worry about it for now – Nacho had already got eyes on the mountain a few days before, and that a lot of garbage information moves around Huarez. Okay, we can make the call once I get back from the Ishinca Valley. Anyways, Alpamayo is just right there beside Artesonraju. It would not be a huge logistical change.
Hotels & bonus climb & poops
Coming back from a few successful Ishinca Valley climbs, including Tocllaraju, with Phil and the Altitude Junkies team had me feeling pretty good. I had a bit of a shit-show with my hotel situation though. I booked a place (that will remain unnamed) that was far worse than TripAdvisor had led me to believe. As soon as I arrived, I paid for the entirety of the stay and immediately walked out. I had no idea where I would go when I stepped into the taxi, but I knew it would not be there. La Casa de Zalera was full, and so was Olaza’s Guest House. I called the Hotel Andino. Sure it cost literally 10x more, but 10x the crappy place just landed me at pretty normal USA prices.
Between the nice hotel and La Brasa Roja, I recovered quickly and begin itching for another climb. I called up Jenn and figured that Huarapasca would be the best one day moderately technical climb for my interim. Early the next morning, I met my guide Sebastian. Our plan was to make the few hour drive to Huarapasca, climb it, and return to Huarez by the night.
For the first time this whole trip, I was not physically feeling very good. Once we began, my head was in the game, but I was moving slow and my balance was off. I couldn’t really place what was going on with my body. At some point, I was traversing across a rocky steep section of the moraine, where suddenly I felt my foot slip and then…weightlessness. No Bueno. Bam. I hit the ground. The fall was only a couple meters and I was not injured aside from some scratches, but that was confirmation that I was not feeling good. With the help of a few pills and GUs, I got back in the game. The weather did not cooperate, but we nailed the summit.
Once I got back to Huarez, it became immediately clear to me what was wrong with my body on the mountain – I had food poisoning. Yay! I stayed in bed for the next couple days eating Cliff purees, which is essentially high priced baby food.
The Feature Attraction
As soon as I met Nacho the morning of our departure, I knew that we would probably be friends. A lot of guides I have climbed with have kind of “distant” attitude. Often there is a very clear distinction that they are the guide and you are the client. On the other hand, Nacho was super personable and clearly really psyched himself to give Artesonraju a shot. Like everybody, he knew that it would not be a trivial ascent and that if we were to nail it, it would be an honorable tick.
Arriving to the Santa Cruz Valley trailhead was kind of a shock. The couple day trek had me surrounded by huge groups of American and European college kids coming to hike the Santa Cruz Valley trail, hoping to glance a peak of the snowcapped peaks and maybe find themselves or something. It was definitely unexpected. Logistically, getting to the Artesonrau or Alpamayo basecamps is a pain by Cordillera Blanca standards. Mules have to be rented, but because the base camp is too far, the mules cannot do it in a single day round trip. Therefore, one needs to rent mules for two days in, along with the food and accommodation for their drivers, and the one day that it takes them to get back, making for 3 days total. To get picked up, it is another 3 days. Total, a round trip is 6 days of hiring the donkeys, their drivers, and their accommodations. The drivers typically don’t like to do two separate round trips themselves for your single round trip if you are not staying for an extended period of time, so you end up paying them to hang out with you at basecamp and while they eat your food. These mule guys have quite the little racket going on.
Artesonraju Base Camp
The two day trek to basecamp was pretty easy and the weather was good. I was feeling fully back up to spec after my little stomach issue in Huarez. We got to basecamp, which was particularly less crowded than the previous sites we had been at, but still occupied by more people than I anticipated. There was a group of Germans who climbed a much easier peak in the area while waiting for two friends coming down from the Artesonraju highcamp who were unsuccessful in their attempt to the summit. There was also a Frenchman and his private guide. The Frenchman and I hoped to chat with the two Germans who just attempted the route that we soon would too, but when they got back to camp they clearly were not in the mood for conversing. Some people take failure less well than others.
We also knew that there was an RMI team up in high camp, and they had been up there for a really really long time. It wasn’t clear what was going on with them and why they had been there for so, which scared me a little bit.
Getting to the high camp is a royal pain in the ass. The trails are shoddy, and are mostly made by wild cows. Cows don’t really care to get to our specific high camp, so the trails just go everywhere. We carried all our gear up, as mules are not really suited for this kind of terrain. Nacho later told me that we could have probably paid a porter hanging out at camp to take our gear up, but he thought it would be expensive. To be honest, I would have paid if I knew.
We arrived to the high camp around 11am, and we could indeed see RMI’s gear sprawled out on the little ridge where we would be camping on. They had a few tents, but not apparently enough for what was supposed to be the size of the team. From what we could see, they had 3 people on the mountain climbing, one cook at the camp, and one other American guy who was just sitting around boiling water. There was an Argentinian party making their way down the face as well.
We used our ice axes to dig out a flat section of the ridge for us to set up camp on – which was a pain at 5000m. Our plan was to wake up around 1am that night, see if the weather looked good, and if so, go for the summit. We boiled water, made food, and took photos of the spectacular Santa Cruz Valley to one side of the camp and the Peron Valley to the other.
“A big drop”
By 2pm, the Argentinian party of 2 landed back in camp and went right for their tents. They look destroyed, so we figured we would leave them alone until they got a chance to eat, drink, and just generally take care of themselves. However, we noticed that they just sat around their tent, looking destroyed, doing nothing. After about 30 minutes, we went over to check in on them, and it turned out that they had run out of food before taking off the previous evening. They had been hanging out waiting for a weather window and expended all their food until they finally had one on their last day. We offered them some ramen and water in return for route information – a fair trade. They told us that they had made it to the main summit ridge where there was “a big drop”, but the rest of the route was in reasonable good condition. We couldn’t really understand what they meant by that, and they were a little too dazed to explain. They had made the round trip in around 13 hours. That was the first positive news we had heard!
To our alarm, the RMI team still up on the mountain had left around midnight, and were still working their way up. By 3pm, that means that they had been on route for 15 hours, with no sign of turning back. Feeling more fed and hydrated, I walked over to the RMI tents to see what was up. It turned out that the American guy boiling water was a client who chose to forego today’s attempt on the mountain. This would be the group’s 3rd attempt. Half the group had already left back to Huarez giving up on the goal. The 3 individuals on the mountain consisted of one American guide, one local guide, and one client. The guy at camp decided to forego the 3rd attempt because the 2nd attempt was “just stupid, and I have two daughters to get home to. I can’t die here. This is fucking stupid.”
So, do I believe the two Argentineans who chose to climb without food in their tent, or the huge but struggling expedition? I didn’t know what to think. I also knew from my last experience on Elbrus’ North Side watching a struggling party in a strom from camp just builds too much anxiety. Enough to make you want to vomit. I popped a few Benadryls, 40mg of melatonin, and went to sleep. Nacho and I woke up to the sound of the RMI group getting back to camp at around 10pm. 22 hours on the mountain. No summit. Damn.
Our alarms rang at 1am. The weather looked fantastic – no wind and not bitingly cold. We are on. I slept surprising well for 5000m, which was the highest I have ever slept in my life. All my worries and anxiety were 100% gone, and all I had in my mind was getting this done. We noticed that the Frenchman and his guide were already awake and about 30 minutes ahead of us in preparation, so we figured we would give ourselves some buffer room on the face and ridge and allow us some time to have a relaxed breakfast. My competitive side wanted to have a shot at the top before them, but it was too much of a petty and arbitrary feeling to potentially mess up our preparation.
We made our way up the moraine onto the glacier, and pretty quickly passed the Frenchman and his guide. We were seriously hauling ass. I felt just as good as if I slept on Mount Baker’s Heliotrope Ridge at 1500m and was shooting for the summit. We were ultra focused, and quickly but carefully weaved our way through the lower glacier making our way onto the face. (The route actually mainly climbs the face of the mountain while hugging the ridge. It only joins the actual ridge very close to the top of the route.) We soon lost total sight of the party behind us. We hit the wall running, or at least whatever running is at high altitude on a steep snow face. The snow was really good, and with RMI making their way up and down the majority of the route three times, the climbing was steep but not hard. Nacho and I planned to simulclimb the majority of the face, just using pickets and ice screws as protection between us. When Nacho would run out of protection, he would belay me up to him and I would hand everything back to him. Nacho had probably around 6 pickets on him, so we didn’t have to stop too many times. Seeing how big this face was, I could see how many groups experience 20+ hour days if they choose to pitch and belay climbers one or two at a time. Obviously simulclimbing exposes everybody to a significant fall risk, but with how good the snow and ice conditions were, we felt that time was more of a risk than falling.
Time, time, time
At the moment and also in my memory, it is impossible for me to tell if that face climb was 30 minutes or 4 hours. Probably closer to the 4 hour mark, but I was totally in my zone. Time was no longer a dimension to me. The only dimension was up. (Z or Y axis?). The sun began to rise, the wind picked up, and we could see the top of the ridge. I pulled out my GoPro and began recording. I had never successfully recorded anything on my GoPro previously, but as the optimistic guy I am, I brought it along with me anyways. In the process of getting it onto my helmet, I almost lost one of my ice axes and managed to catch it with my crampon. Thank God. (From that day forward I have never climbed without tethers.)
We both knew that the major difficulties would occur once we hit that ridge. Time went back to normal pace and with a few awkward sporty ice moves, and we topped out. From here, we had a beautiful view of the messed up situation that we would have to overcome. After examining the route, I could not see a reasonably safe way to gain the final summit ridge. I told Nacho that we could turn back, but he told me that we should at least go as far as the RMI footsteps before we called the climb. We did, and could see that things only got worse.
I knew that if I continued, I would be on terrain that was at my limit. I wouldn’t be at the rock gym though, I would be at nearly 6000m with no rescue in sight. Only one set of footprints continued forward, and we very gingerly followed. There was no way to protect this ridge, all of which was made out of very brittle snow and ice. Somehow the cornices were massive but also very thin, with large holes dramatically punched through them. The large ice steps were floating above vertically oriented crevasses that dropped down to infinity. When climbing them, I could distinctly see my feet popping through into thin air. It was a mix of ice climbing and yoga, where a single minute error would result in certain death. We went slow. Time felt even slower.
On belay, on summit
Fortunately the weather stayed very gentle while we navigated these obstacles, and as soon as Nacho hit the upper ridge, he banged in a picket and screamed, “You’re on belay!!”. My chest felt a million pounds lighter. Not only would I be safe going up the rest of this, but we could also do this a million times safer on the way down. To my knowledge, nobody has died going up this mountain, but a lot have died on the way down.
The footprints ended just a few meters past where Nacho had fixed his picket. Oddly enough, it was pretty clear that the summit was just maybe 25 meters beyond where we were. It was heavily corniced, but nowhere nearly as dangerous as what we just passed. Why the Argentinians had stopped here was a mystery. We looked at each other and figured we couldn’t come all this way to stop just a few minutes from the real deal. We still kept running protection, and made our way over. Unfortunately the weather had very significantly turned for the worse on us, and all the beautiful views were doused in thick whiteness. We took a few photos, and headed down.
ARE YOU CRAZY?!
On our way down the sketchy portion of the ridge, we ran into the Frenchman and his guide, pretty much at one of the worst possible places and moments that it could have happened. Plus, with the low visibility and the convoluted ridge, we got off belay before fully getting by them. Once again we were super exposed. Now in a traffic jamp. The Frenchman, probably in a bit of an exhausted daze, began trying to chop out a section of his rope from a cornice that we were both standing on while trying to navigate around each other. I normally keep my cool, but I yelled at him, “ARE YOU CRAZY?!”. In the moment, I thought we were going to die. As soon as I passed him and got off the cornice, a picture of Wile E Coyote sawing himself off a plank. At least I could find humor in it.
The weather continued to get worse, and soon the wind and snow picked up. It was legitimately uncomfortable. I was struggling to keep feeling and dexterity in my fingers, and Nacho was cursing in Spanish as he built v-threads in the ice. Quite low down on the face, a Russian party that we had never seen before worked their way up to us. It was around 11am, quite late to still be this low and going up. They were still pitching everything out, and looked like a bit of a yard-show in their technique. When we got parallel to them, we urged them to descend as the weather was clearly sub-optimal. We could also see just by their technique, or lack thereof, that the ridge would probably kill them if attempted. Rather than heeding our warnings, they asked us if we though descending with a single 60m rope would be reasonable. The question was so outlandish in context to what we were saying that we just said “no” and continued down. They continued up. We later learned that they ended up turning around a few pitches above us, but spent an epic 28 hours on the mountain to get back.
There is a limited amount of excitement to be had in describing the descent of a big snow and ice face. Rappel after rappel after rappel. An exciting descent is also probably not a good thing. We did have one v-thread on us pop, on the way down. The backup caught, so nobody died, but it made for a scary downclimb. I felt horrible climbing away from it knowing that there were two parties above us, and that somebody may try to use it in an exhausted state before fully testing it, but I had no way to mark it.
We made it back to camp at around 1pm, making for an 11.5 hour round trip. We touched the summit, and more importantly, made it back down.
This climb really pushed me to my physical and mental limit, and not necessarily in a positive way. The extended period of extreme exposure, I believe, quite dramatically affected me for the next couple months in a way I had never experienced before. After getting back home to Seattle, a sort of darkness began to set in, and I struggled to be the excited and outgoing person who I normally am. My nights were constantly interrupted with dreams of falling off ridges and down ice faces. When I would feel happy, I would doubt whether or not I was experiencing real life. Over time, things got better, and although I don’t believe anybody comes back from a considerable challenge as the person they were before, I do think I am a better person now.
I really have to thank Jenn Hrinkevich from Skyline Adventure School. She was absolutely fantastic in supporting this climb. Between all the questions, changes, and more changes, she was just the best. Honestly, if it wasn’t for her, I would have gone for an easier peak. Of course a big thanks goes out to Ignacio Espinosa Andrade (IFMGA) for being an awesome guide and partner on such an involved climb. Nacho does private guided technical climbs in Ecuador, which we had a blast doing later on in the year.