El Altar: Subpeak Dreams and Avalanche Hell

The plan: 8 days, 3 PeakS

Nacho and my expedition to El Altar was planned for 8 days, much longer than we spent last time here in 2017 when we climbed the main summit, El Obispo. We would hike in supported by horses to the Italian Camp, and setup (and likely tear down) a base camp. Then the plan would be to do an alpine style smash and grab of Monja Grande, and 2 further peaks (to remain unnamed for now), inaccesssble from the base camp. 

Jessica and I would be separating for this portion of our trip. I would be off to try to adventure climb on El Altar, and she would be shooting for some classics- Illiniza Sur, Antisana, and Cayambe (all of which I had already climbed). On paper it sounded reasonable, but leaving her at 4am gave me more heartache than I could have imagined. 

Day 1: Getting in

Yesterday we had our first full remote work day, and more importantly, it was Jessica’s birthday. We scrambled to repack in between meetings, squeezed in a run to the grocery store, and went to a very nice dinner for Jessica’s birthday.  I fell asleep tired and woke up just as tired for our 4am meetup.

Angelo, our trusty horse driver (he supported our 2017 climb as well) met us at the parking lot. He casually weight our gear by lifting up and down a few times in his hand. He gauged we had a little too much weight for his 2 horses, and he sadly this morning he couldn’t find a driver for a 3rd horse. And while the norm is to haul in your water due to a lack of running water at the camp, we decided to dump some water to lose some weight. The rainy past few days maybe would have one benefit- running water. If not, it would be a snow-melt-fest for our last few days. 

We wiggled into our rubber boots and angled towards the trail. This trail is usually wet, but fuck, this trail was really wet! I experienced it being muddy last time I was here, but this mud was next level. Hours of gushing through shin deep mud, sometimes being graced with knee deep mud and a mud bath for our socks. After the first oozing of mud into my boots, I just accepted it, it actually had a nice cooling effect on my feet. As I watched Angelo float over the mud, I wondered if he got that name because he floated like an Angel over the demonic mud trying to suck us into the depths. 

Not my shoe, not my problem. But in all seriousness, that sucks.

I’m abbreviating this trek in, simply because it was shitty.  Not as shitty as the guy who lost his shoe that I found in the mud.  Nacho found a beanie and a machete.  

Just as I got into the camp, the clouds cleared and we were presented with a full view of El Altar. Damn, this thing is huge. I actually originally thought I had gone too far and got onto the morraine because the mountain looked so huge in front of me. I guess I had forgotten since the last time I was here, and the pictures just made me forget how big this thing really is. Also, damn, this thing is snow loaded! Coming in, we could hear some crashing sounds in the distance, I assumed that it was rock fall. Now we could see that it was a fairly large series of avalanches. 

As we sat in our tent, ate dinner, and chatted, we were accompanied by the seemingly ever-present thunder of avalanches in the background. Good thing we scheduled 8 days, we need to see this snow settle before getting on any terrain. 

I zipped up the tent and put in my headphones.

Day 2

We slept a helluva long time. For me at least, that was made possible by re-dosing with melatonin and NyQuil 3 times.

Nacho borrowed our basecamp tent from [name redacted, think ultra-high end 8000m peak outfitter]. We were pretty certain this must be a 8000m tent, I had to figure out a special arrangement to stop my pad from slipping around in this massive thing. We spent most the morning collecting water from the slowest drips I could ever imagine collecting water from.  

The day was much nicer than forecasted, which was good news for the snow conditions. We needed a couple days of snow healing before we would be comfortable getting out onto the glacier. We made our way out over the ridge to get a better view of the peak and caught some views of Monja Grande, either our first or last objective.  My heart rate seemed to be doing pretty well, back down to <70bpm, I was happy with that.

DAY 3

Our plan for day 3 was to go set our high camp on the other side of the peak.  It would be mostly an exploratory day of hard work, and also my first time fully self supporting with heavy packs at high altitude. We estimated it would be 8-9 hours to get to where our sat imagery indicated a decent high camp could be placed.  Stepping onto the glacier, we really had no idea what would be in store for us that day.

The majority of this day was a blur to me.  Within  3 or 4 hours, onto the glacier, potholing through heinous snow, the sun set, a fog came, in and a massive series of avalanches began.  We were faced with either going back or looking for a place to hide.  As time went on, going back became obviously impossible due to the poor snow and the tremendous number of avalanches.

I stopped counting avalanches on the 12th on, we estimated that we heard around 50 that day.  We found ourselves walking up plenty of fresh avalanche debris tracks, praying that a 2nd one wouldn’t come in its trace.  

The day got more and more desperate as visibility dropped and the avalanches tore around us.  We needed to find a safe ivy spot.  The deep sticky snow slowing or pace down to a crawl, our situation was desperate.  The horrific snow also had the benefit of covering crevasses just enough to take a bit of weight, but not enough weight.  I found myself falling into 2 crevasses, obliterating my harnesses’ riser in the process. This fucking snow is going to kill us. 

We came across the series of seracs and bergshrunds perched on the ridge of Monja Grande. They looked stable. They seemed to shield all the avy debris to either side of them as well. We perched ourselves on a tiny cornice over a bergsrund, it was out calculated most safe place to be. We This would be home for now. 

It was a horribly dangerous day, and we only reached 1/3rd of the way to our original objective.  “We are here”, at least. 

Our little home, nestled on a comfy cornice between shrunds and seracs.

A bit of sun to raise the mod

As the evening began to set in, the mountain cooled and the visibility increased to a point that allowed the sun through.  Wow, the destruction around us was massive.  And even though the avalanches were still tearing around us, we could now see that we were well guarded.  Our moods rose, knowing we were at least safe for now.  

The tent warmed up and we peeled off our wet clothes to dry them off a bit.  I was thankful to pull my insoles and socks out of my down jacket to dry them outside in the sun.  “We smell like the plague.  Like covid. This smell would kill covid.”

A day like this will make an atheist pray. It took everything we had, everything. 

Day 4

We woke up in the middle of the night, I don’t know what we were thinking, maybe we were too deep in it, but we peeked out and saw it was clear.  Hell, why not gear up and climb Monja Grande.  I didn’t know what was killing me more, my head or my stomach.  The elevation had got to me over the night.  

Nacho pulled out the granola, but just the thought of crunching down on that made me want to vomit.  I needed to figure out a solution for my busted harness, maybe my stomach would calm down after a few minutes of focusing on something else.  I pulled my trusty HMG backpack and undid the shock cord ice tool holder- this would do.  I tied it around the leg loop and tied the busted riser to it.  Hmmm, well it’s not load bearing anyways.  

My stomach and head only seemed to be getting worse, but I knew I needed at least a minimum amount of calories if I wanted to climb the not-so-towering 100m above us.  I tore open a packet of peanut butter and slowly slurped it up.  I’d need some carbs too…hmm. I tore open a Honey Stinger gel and interchanged sucking on that and the peanut butter.  This would make for a good sandwich on a grainy bread back at home, but this morning it just reminded me that something was wrong with my body.

Nevertheless, I pulled on my busted harness, unzipped the tent, and fuck, it was snowing.  Nacho and I looked outside, but so battered from the previous day, it just seemed like yet another shitting thing we’d have to deal with.  Unpaused, I zipped my Goretex and tried to think about the climb instead of my clearly AMSing body. 

I cleared the snow off my crampons, and snapped one on.  The snow was building up on my backpack, my ice tools, everything.  Even my other crampon had snow built up on it. I cleared it off and snapped it on.  My daze continued.

We started climbing the steep slope right above our tent, and within a second we could feel the icy crust of snow obliterating below our kicks.  Just powder under us, oh this fucking powder.  We continued up, playing with this crust…or maybe it was playing with us.  We eventually saw some glide cracks, and that really made us pause.  

Fuck, I’m not feeling good at all.  I feel like shit.  This snow is shit.  This is gunna kill us.

“Nacho!  Man, I’m feeling sick dude, and this snow is horrible.”
“How do you feel? AMS or something else?”
“Naw man, I think it’s AMS”
Nacho not even hesitating a second, “Watch the crack below you, don’t step on it on our way down”

We down climbed, the snow crushing under our weight.  My head pounding.
We got back to the tent, reality kind of set in.

“The snow was very bad man, good thing we turned back.  I realized we were close to setting off a avalanche below is.”

What the fuck were we doing?  We nearly died 10 times over the previous day, and we were still trying to push.  For what?  100 meters?

I collapsed on my sleeping pad.  My Goretex still on, I just laid my bag on top of myself and tried to muster up energy to ruffle through our tent to find whatever pills may make me feel better.  “Fuck man, this peak…”

We laid there staring at our tent blowing in the wind around us.  What to do from here.  Staying on this peak wasn’t an option anymore, it was telling us it was time to go.  We decided we really had two options.  We either get back up, pack up, and get out right now.  With the snow that’s come down already in the night and the certainty of the sun in a few hours, avalanches would be almost inevitable.  Or, we could stay in our little ivy next and hang hunker down until night, and get out then.  We thought on it, I closed my eyes, the sun began to peak out.

“Chris, I think we should go now. You feel good enough?”
I actually was starting to feel much better.  Yeah, fuck it, let’s get out of here.
“Okay, we go now. As fast as possible.”

Within a few minutes everything in the tent was in our packs, and we were outside the tent pulling the poles.  These fucking big bags, I almost forgot.  I squeezed my 70L rollup shut as I forced in the vestibule.  The weather cleared up, and for a brief moment Monja Grande’s summit appeared.  Man, this mountain knows how to play with us.

We both kind of just stood there.  A nice crisp morning, just a little dust of snow in the air.  Feeling good.  

Looking up from our camp towards the summit of Monja Grande- the little snow cap just 100 vertical meters above us.

“Chris, I think maybe this is our window..”
“Man, Nacho, should we go for it..?”
“What do you think, we leave the packs, take one rope, and go for it?”

We both looked at each other, looked at our bags, and looked at the summit.  Right there.  We already climbed 20 of the 100 remaining meters a few hours before.  It’s just right there. Damnit.

Seemingly at the same time, reality flowed back into both of us.  What were we thinking?  We won our game of roulette with the mountain too many times to take a meaningless risk like that.  Dammit though, just 100 meters.  Not worth it.  Fuck it. Let’s go home.

We shouldered our packs and aimed towards our old boot tracks, half of them barley visible from the fresh snow, the other half barely visible from the avalanche debris.  Postholing out was horrible.  For every one step on the crust, there would be two steps breaking thigh deep in.  With every break into the crust, my frustration mounted, and it took more and more mental effort to pull myself out- usually only to break back in.  

Inevitably I fell into another crevasse.  My pole snapped as I went in- yup, that was one of my deeper falls of the trip.  By the 3rd time, we already had the routine.  Nacho got down into self arrest position, an anchor in this snow would be useless.  I grabbed my tibloc, and awkwardly wiggled my way up and out.

A few hours of struggle late, we eventually found our way back to the camp.  The sun came, and we heard the avalanches shortly follow.  “Hey do you think there is any snow left up there anymore…? Haha” Good timing. We could see in the distance that our postholing kind of perforated the glacier, and that a huge avalanche was triggered by our steps.

A photo of the carnage once we were back at our basecamp.

Day 5

We fell asleep and woke up to a group of 10 or 15 trekkers chatting around camp. Normally it would have been kind of annoying, but it was nice to hear some normalcy.  It was a much nicer day, sunny and cool. As we grabbed our poles to head down, they stopped us and asked if they could take some selfies with us.  I guess we were an attraction.

We took one last look at El Altar. “We could have climbed it.  But at what risk..?” We began our walk back down.

“When we put on our harnesses and step out, we make a promise to our love ones, our families, that we will not take any more risk than necessary. We are already here, which is an unnecessary risk, so not one risk more is our promise.”

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