Some things can be on your bucket list for a long time. As you can imigane, there are quite a few mountains on my bucket list. Some of them are 8000-ers, but there are also other mountains on that list. Alpamayo was one of them. Alpamayo is just below 6000 meters and is located in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru. It is mainly known for its fantastic ice wall which is the last challenge on the way to the summit. In the beginning of 2016, I decided to remove Alpamayo from my bucket list … by climbing it.
Because adventure and friendship is a formula for success, I contacted Doug Beall to check whether he was interested in an adventure in Peru. I got to know Doug in the nineties on Kilimanjaro and since then we’ve completed quite a few adventures successfully. Doug was immediately enthusiastic about Alpamayo and with that, we could start preparing ourselves.
After months of training and logistical preparations, we both got on an airplane to Lima on the 19th August 2016. When we got there, we went through the planning one more time and the next morning, hopped on a bus to Huaraz. When we arrived, we were welcomed by our local logistical support, Manuel Bernuy Ponte.
Huaraz is a pleasant city with an enjoyable climate. It is the Peruvian mountaineering center between the Cordillera Blanca (in the east) and the Cordillera Negra (in the West) and is located at an altitude of 3100 meters.
We started our acclimatisation with the day hikes. The first one took us to Wilcacocha Lake at 3800 meters. The next day, our target was Churup Lake at 4450 meters. To finalize the acclimatisation, we just needed one more step: climb Yanapaccha (5450 meter).
The journey started with a 4 hour drive from Huaraz to the starting point of the hike. The drive started on a proper road but after a while the van turned on to a dirt road that took us past incredible views of the surrounding mountains and endless sharp turns to an altitude of 4600 meter. There, we were awaited by our donkey driver that brought my equipment to the moraine camp.
After a light lunch, I continued the journey on foot. About two hours later I arrived at a little lake that looked very inviting for a plunge. However, considering this little lake is fed by glacial water of 1 degree centigrade, I decided to resist the temptation and set up my tent. The cook and the rest of the crew arrived as well and an hour later, I could enjoy tea and cookies. The rest of the day, I limited my activities to the bare minimum to save energy for the following day.
At 3 am my alarm went off. We had agreed to have breakfast at 3.30 and to leave at 4 am. I had another 560 meters to climb to the summit of Yanapaccha. My oxygen saturation was only 78 when I woke up. That was likely a consequence of the short but steep acclimatization approach of the last couple of days and the jet lag that had disrupted my sleep. I decided not to rush my summit attempt as there was no hurry.
After a short walk, we arrived at the glacier were we put on crampons, harness and helmet. The three of us (Doug, Manuel and me) all tied ourselves to each other as well to continue the climb. The first hour we turned between and over crevasses. Then we turned the other direction to climb up underneath a series of seracs. While we did that, then sun sent a beautiful red morning glow over the mountains in our direction.
When we had about 100 meters to go to the summit, we chose for a direct route to the ridge. To get to that ridge, we had to ice climb 50 vertical meters. Nice and a good preparation for the Alpamayo where we will need to climb 500 vertical meters like this. The last 50 vertical meters to the summit were more gradual again and finally we reached the summit at 07.30 am where we could enjoy a fantastic view of the biggest peaks of the Cordillera Blanca.
The descent went smooth. First we rappelled and then we descended further the same way we came up over the glacier to the moraine camp where we were waited by the cook with a bowl of delicious soup. The rest of the day we rested and the next day we returned to Huaraz where I could enjoy a hot shower and a rest day. With that, the acclimatization had been completed and I was ready for the main goal of the trip: the climb of Alpamayo.
This climb started with a bus ride, this time to Cashapampa. There we started with the 2 day trekking to basecamp at an altitude of 4300 meters. The start of the trekking was steep and hot. The journey brought us via a ravine to the Llamoral camp at 3750 meters.
The next day we continued our journey with a gradual climb until we could see Alpamayo and we left the valley towards basecamp. Because we were higher, fortunately is wasn’t so hot anymore. Once we arrived in basecamp, we pitched our tents and organized our equipment. The intent was to only take to the high camp what was absolutely necessary for the summit attempt.
On Monday we left at 8 am for a 1000 meter climb to the high camp at 5300 meters. The first part was fairly straightforward because we hadn’t reached the snowline yet. On Alpamayo, this snowline (or ice line in this case) is at 5000 meters. They had saved the hardest part for last though. The last 300 meters we climbed over a glacier and the last 100 meters contained a few vertical ice sections. Compared to last year, these sections turned out to be a bit bigger. But in the end, I had come to Alpamayo to iceclimb so these last 100 meters were sort of an unexpected bonus. It felt great to pull out the ice axes and have a go at it.
At 4 pm, after we had set up camp, we talked a bit about the summit attempt. Despite the nice weather, things did not look very good for a moment. We had noticed that the snow on the way to the high camp was actually pretty lousy. The fresh snow that had fallen that night was of poor quality. On top of that it was actually too warm so this snow didn’t harden. This could possibly create avalanche danger in the first two pitches of the climb. We decided to assess the situation at the beginning of the first pitch that night.
But when we put our head out of the tent at 1 am that night, the weather was no good at all. Too many clouds could mean that we would get even more snow while we were climbing. That didn’t really look like a good idea. We had no option but to wait. But the waiting was rewarded because at 2:30 am the sky had cleared out. We prepared ourselves as quickly as possible to start our ascent. In the distance, we could see the dancing lights of a Swiss team that hadn’t waited for the ideal circumstances.
At 3:30 we set off in the direction of the ice wall. The route to the wall did go through powder snow which wasn’t very promising for potential avalanche danger but in the end it turned out to be allright. The snow on the first two – least steep – pitches wasn’t great and painful to climb but there wasn’t any obvious avalanche danger.
At about 4 am we started our 7 pitches ice climbing towards the summit of Alpamayo. The first two pitches were difficult because of the snow. It was hard to get a good grip and it took me quite a bit of energy to get 100 meters up. The altitude was also showing itself. I had to go full throttle the entire climb.
After the first two pitches the route became steeper which means less snow and more ice. In these circumstances that was an advantage. I was starting the find a good rhythm when things took a negative turn. When I looked up for a second to check how much I still had to go, a piece of ice the size of a golf ball hit me straight in my left eye. The initial pain was brutal. I stayed put for a little while next to a Swiss climber I had caught up with. Because the situation wasn’t getting any better, I decided to continue climbing with one eye closed until I could get someone to take a look at my eye.
But getting your eye checked out is not so easy when you’re dangling off an ice wall at 5500 meters, especially when it’s night. The only option was to eat the pain and continue climbing as well as I could. Fortunately, the pain started to decrease at the end of the 4th pitch. We had another 3 pitches to go and the summit came in sight.
Despite the increasing altitude and fatigue, the climbing went better all the time. The route became steeper but the ice also became better. The sun came up which made it a little warmer. On the other hand, the sun also made my left eye tear.
At about 8 am, I climbed on top of the little Alpamayo summit together with Doug. There wasn’t really a great view because of the clouds but that didn’t ruin the fun. We were however in a bit of a hurry. As we had left high camp pretty late, we would have to descend part of the route in the sun which may cause more falling ice. I felt I already had had my share of falling ice, so we decided to descend as quickly as possible.
The advantage of a steep ice climb is that you can rappel down which is a lot faster – and requires less energy – than climbing or walking down. 3 hours later, we were enjoying a cup of tea and wonderful soup in our high camp. There was talk of descending further to basecamp, but because my eye was still hurting, it seemed better to let my eye rest. I retreated in the tent which stopped most of the ultraviolet light. I kept my glacier glasses on, pulled my hat over my damaged eye and tried to catch some sleep. I must have looked like a pirate in the mountains.
But the strategy worked. A few hours later, the pain was much better and the next morning it was as good as gone. Hence, we could continue our descent to basecamp.
On Thursday, we broke up basecamp and hiked all the way back to Cashapampa, where we celebrated the summit with a Peruvian beer before we got on the bus to Huaraz.
To complete my adventure in Peru I also hiked to Machu Picchu, which I can absolutely recommend to everyone who has a taste for adventure and culture.