Death & Failure, Cordillera Blanca 2018

Planning my return to the Cordillera Blanca, something in my gut felt off a few weeks before heading out. So much so that a month before flying out I dramatically reduced the length of my trip without really any good reason. Maybe I felt that my success rate of 100% in South America the previous year was just too high (humble brag). I figured I’d just stick to the two relatively straightforward routes and live happily- Aplamayo’s Ferrari Route and Quitaraju’s West Face. That plan turned out to be very short lived though.

I wasn’t too stressed and had a pretty good idea of what I thought I should be expecting. The trip would be brief, just 15 days from Seattle to Seattle. Assuming reasonable acclimatization limits, I believed that this wouldn’t be enough time for any of the more serious objectives that I had been contemplating. I even went on to scheduling a Mount Robson trip for later in the season thinking that I would need something more serious. (Unfortunately this got canceled due to a small injury and some major smoke problems in Canada.)

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Huaraz, the mountaineer’s paradise.

Problems “afoot”

Arriving to Lima, a foot arthritis overuse injury that really rarely flares up had crept up on me over the flight, unfortunately with my medication packed deep in my duffle. I limped over to baggage claim, dug out the pills, and popped them on the spot. Tearing through my bags in the middle of the airport to pop pills probably had me looking like a drug addict, but I didn’t care! I needed the meds to act fast enough to allow for me to get my proper acclimatization in. If I would have to miss an acclimatization day or two, that could spell disaster for sleeping at 5000m in a week. I had also packed in Diamox, so that would be the plan B if I couldn’t do any acclimatization hikes. I was also meeting Michael, one of my fellow climbers, for the first time in the airport. I knew we would probably be sizing each other up a bit, so it concerned me a little to be meeting him for this first time in this slightly physically impared state. (On the other hand, the airplane pressure had my biceps looking more ripped than usual in my T-shirt, so at least I had that going for me…!)

I crashed in the hotel to get some sleep before our 8am pickup to head over to the bus station for the 8 hour ride into Huaraz. I’d be meeting Declan, my planned rope partner. I was less limpy today and feeling all around more optimistic than the previous night. I filled the ride with a crash course refresher in Spanish (ie. binge watching Narcos Season 2).

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Acclimatizing at Lake Churup.

Deaths on Alpamayo

Arriving to Huaraz after the 8 hour bus ride, Declan and I were pretty hungry and we booked it straight to La Brasa Roja where we met up with my buddy, Phil Crampton from the Altitude Junkies (link Ishinca Valley). Like any reasonable climbers at La Brasa Roja, we ordered a few half chickens for ourselves. Phil sadly informed us that after his previous organized trip, his guide and a client went off to do a person climb of Alpamayo’s Ferrari Route.  They, along with another woman, were killed when a overhanging cornice broke off up high and tore down the couloir.  3 of the 4 climbers died on the route on 5am that day. Phil, having been close with the two individuals, had spent the last few days organizing the logistics relating to the deaths. We ordered a big jug of wine (of which I didn’t drink – link) and allowed ourselves to pay our respects to the very sad situation. Such close deaths to home on the mountain we planned to be climbing soon was tough to stomach.

Later that night, literally tough on the stomach, something wasn’t playing right in my intestines. Maybe it was the train food, maybe it was the joint meds. Between the bad news, my arthritis acting up, and a bad stomach, I lay in bed wondering if I should really be here at all. I spoke to my mom that night over the phone and I didn’t even really know what to tell her. I opted to not say anything about it at all.

I fell asleep feeling sick, physically and mentally.

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Objective risks, objectives change

The next morning Ted, the owner of Skyline, came by the hotel to have our first official team meeting. After the meet and greet, he opened up with the topic of the deaths on Alpamayo. Ted himself coordinated the retrieval of the bodies off the mountain, also being a close friend of one of the deceased. It was a tough subject to broach, but it was something that needed to be addressed head-on. We could go up there and likely turn around, or we could shoot for something totally different. Declan and I had already been thinking things over since the night before, and Michael quickly agreed to changing things up. With Ranrapalca’s North Face being in unseasonaly good condition and already being on Michael and I’s to-do list, the decision to switch to the Ishinca Valley was easy.  Infact I was a little jealous of my friends who I met last year (link Ishinca Velley), Dave and Joe, whom a few days prior climbed Ranrapalca’s North Face and reported great conditions from bottom to top. (As it turns out, Michael and I both independently wanted to climb Ranrapalca originally, but switched over to Alpamayo for logistical reasons.) We would also plan to give a new route on Urus Este’s West Face a shot, along with Tocllaraju’s West Face.

After sorting out the logistics of the new plan, Delcan and Michael headed off to rock climb for the day while I went off to get a few things done in town and meet up with Phil for lunch. We happened to run into Dave and Joe (the folks mentioned above), so it made for a pretty chill afternoon and evening.

With the new plans, my arthritis almost completely better, and my stomach almost being back to normal, I was finally feeling good about being in the Cordillera Blanca.

Ishinca Valley 2018

I kind of mentally accepted that with the nature of the objectives we were looking at, summiting 1 of the 3 would be very acceptable, and that 2 of the 3 would be a massive success. Not that it wouldn’t be absolutely sweet to summit all 3, but I wanted to be reasonable and keep in mind that the real objective was to come home safe. Each of the three routes would be worthy expeditions in themselves.

Ultimately we only managed to get 1 of our 3 climbs in. Climbing Urus Este’s West Face by a significant new variation, enough to label it a first ascent, was definitely an awesome but intense experience. In the end, it took us a bit more than 20 hours camp to camp. We believe that the line that we took was in the TD+ M5 range (by Cordillera Blanca standards).

 


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First Ascent: Epicing on Urus Este’s West Face

“Taking a new line up the West Face of Urus Este was a choose-your-own-adventure situation. As we traversed the glacier below, there were clearly a ton of good, bad, and terrible choices up this thing. We chose one of the more southern lines making for a slightly longer ridge traverse, but it looked like like the “easiest” to tackle. Plus, with the ridge supposedly being mostly covered in snow, the traverse to the summit towards the north shouldn’t really be an issue. Again, we really had no idea though…” [read full, First Ascent: Epicing on Urus Este’s West Face]


Deaths on Artesonraju

While sitting around in the Ishinca Hut, rumors began to swirl that there had been a significant accident on Artesonraju’s North Ridge, which we had climbed the previous season. With poor communication the details were slim, but Nacho knew that there was a group of close friends up there from Mexico, all very strong climbers. We later unfortunately confirmed that two deceased was indeed a Mexican duo. Nacho and I climbed that same route last year, and as far as the Casa De Guias knew, him and I were the last to successfully top out the route.

Oddly enough, this time the news just floated over me. To me at the moment, it was something that just happened in the mountains. In retrospect, that I believe that allowing oneself to disconnect like this is very dangerous.

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Ranrapalca Highcamp

Just coming off our 20 hour epic on Urus Este’s West face, we began packing for Ranrapalca. The end of mid-July is usually considered a bad time to attempt climbing Ranrapalca by any route. However, with unseasonably cold and snowy weather, it looked like it may still be in condition. Our plan would be to ascend the North Face, and descend the North East ridge. At the time of writing this the Casa de Guias estimated an astonishing 20 ascents of the peak this season, compared to the typical 0-5 ascents per season. We heard at the hut that we may not even be the only team on the face during our planned ascent day. We were clearly not the only ones pivoting plans to adjust for conditions.

The day we were planned to move to high camp, I woke up at 3am to my tent shaking under the strong winds and rain. I’ve been attempting to pull back my natural wake up times during this whole trip to adjust for alpine starts, basically self induced jet lag. It’s great in concept, but it leaves me with pretty lonely mornings. (That’s when I write these!) My muscles felt fully recovered, but I still had a bit of a cough from the dust on Urus’s backside and a bit of arthritis. This arthritis has been pretty annoying through this trip. I took a horse-size ibuprofen that I bought in Huaraz and chugged a liter of water. The arthritis medication was too dehydrating to reasonably to take, so I hoped that this would work.

The mountain really only invokes one of two feelings in people. Either “climbing that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”, or “I need to figure out how to climb that”. There’s really no in between.

Ranrapalca is really one of those things in life where photos just don’t do it justice. The feeling of standing at the bottom of a 3000’ cube of granite and ice just cannot he captured in photos. The mountain really only invokes one of two feelings in people. Either “climbing that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”, or “I need to figure out how to climb that”. There’s really no in between. After being here last year, I fell into the camp of the latter.

Deaths on Huscaran

We made it to our highcamp, which turned out to be two tiny platforms looking onto the massive face. Oddly enough, Nacho and Mitcher got cell reception here. They were unfortunately greeted with the news at 2 more individuals had died, this time by icefall on Huscaran.  Huscaran’s Escudo was actually one of the routes I had chopped from this expedition due to too much uncertainty in conditions.

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Bailure

Surrounded by death, I took a good hard look at myself, the mountain, and why the heck I was even here. I could hear rockfall everywhere. Deep runnels were carved into the face. My gut screamed that this was a stupid idea. I pulled Nacho aside and had the hard talk with him, I would be going down the following morning.

The next morning I hightailed it down to the hut. I met up with my friends I had made over the past couple weeks and bought myself a drink. It’s amazing how close people can get in such short periods of time during these expeditions. We continued drinking and until each one of us flew home.  Once I got home, I didn’t think about climbing for weeks. I didn’t even unpack my bags. It took me quite a long to even post this.

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