Tocllaraju, West Face Direct is part 4 of 4, in Cordillera Blanca 2019, Redemption
Technical climbing info
- Mountain: Tocllaraju
- Elevation: 6,032m
- Route: West Face Direct, descent via NW Ridge
- Length of Difficulties: 1000m
- Grade: D+, AI4, some snow-aid
- Day 1: Transport from Huaraz to the Ishinca Valley parking lot, load up mules, hike to basecamp.
- Day 2: Move to moraine camp.
- Day 3: Summit push from moraine camp, round trip 14 hours.
- Day 4: Descend to basecamp.
- Day 5: Return to Huaraz. (The last 2 days could easily be compressed.)
3 seasons in the making
The above featured photo is neither of me nor even from this year. This is the photo I took in 2017 that continued to inspire me to make this climb eventually happen. Three seasons ago, I met a friendly Spanish-Argentinian duo in the Ishinca Hut. We would be climbing Tocllaraju on the same day, them from the West Face, and me from the Northwest Ridge. I snapped the photo below as a memento for them, but it ended up being my cell phone’s background for the next 2 years. I couldn’t stop looking at it, thinking about it, what an epic route.
Back to the Ishinca Valley
Originally this year Jessica and I didn’t come to the Cordillera Blanca to climb Tocllaraju at all. However, after quickly realizing our original plan were not going to be practical, we went through a series of possible iterations, none of which I was really happy with. Eventually running into Mitcher, a friend and local guide, I pitched to him the idea of climbing Tocllaraju’s West Face. Although he was taking an “easy year” after a tough past season, the idea lit a spark in his eyes.
A few days later we all headed off to the Ishinca Valley. This would be my 3rd time to the valley in 3 years. I liked this valley, in fact, this is where Jessica and I had met the previous year. We popped into the hut and sat on the table we had met 54 weeks prior. We reminisced over our the start of our to-be relationship, and Mitcher proudly exclaimed that he was there for it.
“If 100% is perfect, this looks like 80%”.
80% is pretty good for out here.
As we headed up to our high camp, Mitcher and I were glued to the binoculars. I was happy to see that the truly humongous serac previously guarding the entire face the had fallen off. That must have been a pretty dramatic moment when it happened. We heard from Nacho that an Ecuadorian team bailed from below the face a few days prior due to what looked like an unreasonable amount of unconsolidated snow up high. We could see some “puff” up high, but it was hard to tell just what it was. Mitcher asked me what I thought. “Dude, we don’t have faces like this back home. I’d say that looks like an avalanche crown building up. But it’s also too steep for that. I have no idea.”
Mitcher looked at me and said, “If 100% is perfect, this looks like 80%”. 80% is pretty good for out here. The rest of the face looked like blue wind-hardened bulletproof ice. It looked physical.
Summit morning-ish, we woke up early, 11am. We knew that with the icy conditions would slow us down. Instead of cruising our way up beautiful styrofoam neve snow, we would be hacking our way up the ice slowly, from bottom to top, one pitch at a time. We quickly hit the glacier and started looking for our entry point through our first major obstacle, the bergshund. It was indeed massive, but with a crossing placing us at the very middle bottom of the face, requiring only some minor gymnastics. Ultra-directo.
As we made our way up the first couple pitches, we could see the headlamps starting to make their way below us on the normal route. The tiny headlamps shined up at us from below, examining what ridiculous route we have chosen to take up the mountain. For a very brief moment of bliss I felt like we were on a cloud. We had a long way ahead of us.
Too icy to simulclimb, we made our way up, pitch after pitch, on the very active glacial face. We could feel the occasional glacial fault snapping beneath us as we would kick in our frontpoints. “BRAAAAAKKKKK”. We felt a huge fault below our bodies, shifting the entire ice face down by a millimeter with us gripped on top of it. My heart stopped. Never in my life has a millimeter felt so big. We continued.
As out pitches became more efficient, the wall became steeper. It’s a give and take, I guess. We heaved our way up, praying to find little streaks of neve snow to rest on. My heart was pounding, my legs were throbbing, and my lungs were crying. As our altimeters indicated that we reached the halfway point of the face, we confirmed that moving above here would mean no turning back. Rappelling a face like this from high up would take longer and be riskier than walking down the Northwest Ridge. Although my body thoroughly disagreed with continuing, we agreed. We would finish this thing off.
If they hurt, they’re still okay
The sun began to peak over the horizon. Usually being a moment I look forward to, I had been dreading it. I knew that the warming of this peak would mean heavy winds. I still recognized that it made for a cool photo though, I pulled my camera and snapped a shot. I considered putting on my GoPro, but I was no in the mood for that at all. My body was screaming, begging me to stop. Plus, I was pretty certain that by now my climbing technique probably looked pretty unimpressive.
As the wind inevitably picked up, I looked at my watch. 5800m, just 4 more pitches to go. I threw on my thicker layers as I realized that my fingers were so numb that they didn’t hurt anymore. I had always gone by the motto, “If they hurt, they’re still okay”. They didn’t hurt, and they were a weird color. Not okay.
“I think this mountain is going to take every last bit of energy we have”
Mitcher looked back at me as we were about to enter into what from below looked like unconsolidated snow, but turned out to be more pure ice, “I think this mountain is going to take every last bit of energy we have, this is a proper D+”. We were witnessing was probably the very beginning of another serac. Even though my body was in pain and I couldn’t feel my fingers, I still could recognize that it was cool to be standing on the baby serac.
No rest for the wicked
Finally, the summit cornice came into view in what looked like 150m to our upper left. We completed our final pitch and simulclimbed the stable ridge to the obvious weak point onto the summit- a 3 meter narrow powdery overhung notch carved into the cornice. Narrow, powdery, overhung. Fuck, this mountain just cannot give us a break.
We set a belay and very carefully “aid” climbed up these final 3 meters. Placing 5 pickets over and over again and doing a series of weird body jams, we were up a whopping 1 hour later.
I collapsed on the summit, coughing and heaving in the wind, cold, and thin air. It was not a glorious state at all. I could also feel AMS on setting pretty bad, we had spent a lot of time working hard above 6000m. We quickly packed up our gear for the descent. It was getting late in the day and I didn’t want to stay above 6000m for any longer.
A rappel later, we were solidly on the much more straightforward terrain of the Northwest ridge, a beautiful route in its own right. Somehow on this side of the mountain it was a glorious day. We stopped for a break under the face, admired our work, stripped our warm layers, and drank the last of our water.
All downhill from here.