Huangoruncho 1941

Publication Year: 1943.

Huagoruncho 1941


EASTERLY of Cerro de Pasco rises Huagoruncho, or Huaga- runcha according to the “Millionth Map.” This peak’s precipitous sides, sheathed in tropical ice, proclaim its character as upthrust rather than volcano along with the majority of Peru’s giants. Isolated in origin as well as location, its 18,860 ft. of gleaming ice stand splendidly alone above neighboring snow-clad volcanoes that, like a line of attendant courtiers, bow out of sight along the road to Oxapampa.1

My trip there started one evening in Cambridge. Law books palled for a time and I had turned to the American Alpine Journal for a fateful moment that stretched to a whole summer south of Panama. Bill Jenks’ pictures of the mountain seized my imagination and drew until that August 3rd day when he, his wife Betty, Andy Kauffman and I stood gazing eastward from Cerro de Pasco toward the dimly-seen icy spire.

That evening John Coyle arrived from Oroya and, in his reporting the theft of his camera, began a series of mishaps that was to plague us throughout the trip. The night advanced, and still failed to produce the balance of the party, Tom Terry, Russell Coyle and Helen Germer, who were vacationing in the metropolis of Lima. Apparently they had mistaken the day set for meeting. Midnight lay within one circuit of the minute hand before a last call over the erratic Peruvian telephone system finally got them out of bed. An all-night drive up the tremendous highway of endless curves brought them to Tambo del Sol only fifteen minutes late for our rendezvous with the autocarril for Huachon.

In a short account of an expedition that failed of its objective, space is lacking to describe the marvels of engineering that make travel possible in Peru. Our autocarril with the aid of switchbacks at last carried us down a 3000-ft. canyon wall to Huachon, where the Compania Mineria Nacional supplied us with horses for the trip to the mountain. This journey in, with its rising crescendo of steep valleys that finally turned a corner revealing the mountain bathed in the setting sun, will ever remain an indelible impression on our minds. We climbed up through the valley to the C M N hut at Tarata as the light faded on the lower slopes.

Betty Jenks and Russell Coyle had gone before in an attempt to skirt the N. of the mountain and discover perhaps a better route to the summit than those offered by the dizzy paths of either the S. E. or W. ridges. Their return would necessarily be late, but time passed in great chunks without a sight or a yell. We slept with alarm clocks set to start search in the event the large valley continued empty as the night wore on. Not the clock, but the caretaker’s dog aroused us at 10.00 P.M. Bill’s anxiety for Betty then drove him out, with John Coyle, clothing and hot coffee in a thermos. Andy and I, new to these altitudes, stayed in cautious inactivity to avoid the saroche so likely to strike at 14,500 ft. Jenks and John Coyle were hardly an hour gone when yells came from the gulf below the cabin where lay two glacial lakes. Betty was coming up the hill on foot. Her horse had given out miles back, she said, and Russell and she had walked. He followed close after with wet feet in sneakers, stopping frequently for breath that rose in clouds in the freezing air. In doubt as to the way, they had come up the bottom of the valley, nearly 1000 ft. below the horse trail that wound down the ancient moraine clinging to the southern slope. The crash of streams and the vastness of the place had swallowed their cries before they reached the search party above them.

Now the rescuers needed recalling. Tom and Helen, newly arrived from Lima, and sleepless for 48 hours, doubted their ability to carry through the job. Kauffman, though willing, declared he felt strangely in the altitude, and so the present writer set out with Chihualio, the company’s Indian caretaker.

Our friends had over an hour’s start on us. Walking down the gradual incline proved rapid, but we were unable to catch them before reaching the junction of Tarata Valley with that leading to Oxapampa. Once there, we knew they would walk as fast as we northward around the mountain, and our continuance would only mean meeting them on their return with news of a conclusion to which they would then in all probability have been forced—that Betty and Bill had somehow passed them. Chihualio and I then turned in the brilliant moonlight and climbed back to the cabin, cooled by the wind off the glaciers of Huagoruncho. We reported our failure to Betty there at 3.00 A.M.

There was nothing to do but go to sleep believing the food and clothing the absentees carried would enable them to pass a safe, if uncomfortable, night.

The morning of August 3rd gave promise of a splendid day. Eight-thirty found Jenks and John Coyle still out, but there seemed even less reason in the bright sunlight to fear for their safety. Betty sent a letter out to Huachon by arriero departing with the mules, explaining events and requesting John and Bill come back in if they had perhaps gone in search of outside help. We expected them to show up momentarily and viewed this device as merely an excess of caution.

Nothing appearing to be gained by our presence at the cabin, Kauffman, Terry and I set off to reconnoiter the S. E. ridge. Betty’s sketches of the N. ridge made the previous day eliminated it as a possibility. Our way lay along the mountain side of the lower lake and up a steep chimney leading out of its cup-like depression to the base of the retreating glacier above. From Tarata there appeared only a few hundred feet of broken ice before the going smoothed off into an easy ascent to a low saddle on the ridge. We therefore elected to go as the crow flies. Unfortunately, our distant impression proved false and we found nearly three hours of wandering a devious course among crevasses and seracs slowed our advance toward the sticking point. Our elevation also did Kauffman no good. The promise of excessive fatigue noticed by observant members of the party in his blue lips and general lassitude on the day of our arrival now bore fruit. The way up steepened for him far more rapidly than for the rest of us. Halts of increasing length seemed to fail of their design to increase his store of energy, as each advance drained more than the interval’s accumulation. Such effects of altitude are common, but in Kauffman’s case, completely without his fault, for he had taken every precaution to prevent saroche.

Above us the clouds of wind-borne jungle vapor tripped white over the ridge to ever greater thickness. Their condensed moisture bedewed us, then powdered our heads as snowflakes whirled around. The making weather not only promised ill for our return to camp, but the view up the ridge we had hoped to obtain had now vanished in the fog. In addition, our absence from camp, not knowing what had befallen Jenks and Coyle, made us reluctant to cause additional worry as to our whereabouts when the rescuers might still be out unheard from. Under these circumstances of fatigue, meteorological uncertainty and consideration for the rest of the party we voted a return at about 3.00 P.M.

Knowing the difficulties of the direct route, we now skirted the ridge by long tongues of smooth snow from which events proved we could always traverse to others and thence to the rock in short order. This retreat at least showed us any route to a possible base camp on the E. ridge would have to be circuitous.

On arrival at camp near 6.00 we found Jenks and John Coyle returned and once more the whole party was united.

August 4th passed in rest and preparation for further reconnaissance. Our abortive trip to the S. E. ridge had made it plain success that way would be nearly impossible of attainment. Now, however, that we had Jenks with us, his eye, aided by glasses, found hope on the W. ridge, that joining Huagoruncho to Peak A. His photographs of two years before had combined with memory to make him believe no chance lay in that direction. Nevertheless, we found the mountain changed. Some ice pinnacles that discouraged us, looking at the pictures back in Cerro, had largely vanished. Their absence left a profile seemingly not impossible. Then, too, our mountain had a N. W. ridge of which we had no report at all, and these facts suggested an ascent of Peak A to see if a way did not offer itself either up from the W. or whether the profile of the N. W. ridge offered hope. In addition Peak A’s 17,000-odd ft. lay unclimbed before us, clearly worthy of attaining.

So August 5th saw us off at 2.00 A.M. by flashlight to skirt the ridge below Jancahuay and Incatana to the Triangular Glacier and thence down into the next valley and across to Peak A.

We were four—Kauffman, John Coyle, Jenks and I. Today John had to go out to return to work after his short vacation. Bill, too, with a cold, and family worries, felt much of his usefulness might be over. He had never planned to do more than provide support and advice in any case as he felt the risks of an ascent unjustified for the father of two children. Still they went along to show us the way and bear the heavier packs to the Triangular Glacier.

Early in the game Kauffman’s fatigue again manifested itself. Although unburdened, he could not keep up with the rest of us. Twice we left him behind and, growing worried, started back to look. These delays consumed time and temper, so that the Triangular Glacier did not see us before 6.00 A.M. There Andy in deepest chagrin confessed his inability to continue. So we breakfasted in that high saddle and watched dawn explode across those Arctic tropics. It was a sad meal. Across the way Peak A beckoned with fire-tipped upper ridges from beyond a vast gulf of streams crashing into new life with the sun’s heat. We almost seemed able to touch her, but drew back, reminded by the restless whispering wind of the tremendous spaces below us.

This, then, was to be our zenith. Nevertheless, the day still lay before us and John need not depart earlier than noon. BiU said he would accompany Andy back while John and I elected to attempt a traverse of the ridge leading to Incatana and beyond to Jancahuay. Company parted, our path lay along and up, with interval losses of altitude to accommodate teeth in the ridge. Goiag proved slow, although few places failed to solve themselves after a little snooping around. At last, however, we found ourselves confronted by an overhanging gendarme. From the base of 1his obstacle a steep crack slanted down to the lower reaches of Irca- tana’s precipitous eastern glacier. Our way lay either down this crack or, with time-consuming circuity, back along our route of approach. My watch stood near ten and so the more direct descent seemed desirable for economy of time as the path to Huachon was still far away.

The crack proved better than 300 ft. with only one passage of difficulty. Here my first thoughts of a rappel finally yielded to a careful climb down while John paid out rope pulley-wise aronnd a knob whose other side offered the descent. From the crack’s bottom an easy traverse led us to the glacier which hospitably saluted us with a stream just there.

On arrival at camp alone, I learned that the Jenkses, feeling their colds and a sprained ankle reduced their value to the vanishing point, had also left.

August 9th passed in rest and step-cutting below Jancahuay for the instruction of the more inexperienced members of the Peruvian contingent.

August 10th saw Russ, Tom and me, after a 5.30 start, quickly traverse our practice ladder of the previous day to approach the peak itself. Tom decided repose on the glacier better suited his feeling toward the altitude and so Russ and I alone reached the summit of Jancahuay at 10.30 via the N. ridge, which leads, in the opposite direction, to Huagoruncho itself. The brilliant sunlight tempted us to stay, snapping pictures, so we reached Tom only some time later when Huagoruncho’s summit already lay deep in clouds. The route to Incatana lay before us, rising steeply across the undulating glacier, and over it hung the shadow of the gathering storm. Toward camp a first step would be followed by others until, home at last, 4000 miles would lie between us and the peak almost within our grasp. Dislike of this prospect drove us with little steps toward the mountain, postponing the retreat which storm and altitude warned us would shortly be inevitable. The air thickened with snow and half an hour later retreat seemed the better part of progress. So we took that step toward camp.

Those who follow us have no assurance they will find the mountain anything like the way we left it. Changes take place rapidly there under the assaults of the sun, which now seems more felt than formerly, probably as the result of a long-term change in climate. Conquest of this mountain will require time, much more of it than lay at our disposal. Reconnaissance still remains to be done on the W. and N. W. ridges. Whatever route proves feasible will not be easy and will call for great skill, daring and perseverance. In his conquest the climber will be aided by splendid weather in August particularly. Usually the days are clear until the middle of the afternoon when snowstorms of one to two hours’ duration often arise on the upper slopes. The evening then becomes clear again. Nights are cold and usually clear, although heavy valley fog nay prove dangerous to a late party.

In closing, tribute should be paid to the magnificent hospitality of the Compania Mineria Nacional. Through them our way was made easier a thousand-fold, as difficulty of transportation will remain one of the lasting obstacles to mountaineering in Peru. Their generosity gave us rail and mule transportation, night’s lodging in Huachon and the use of the Tarata cabin, whose caretaker performed many of those chores that mar the bliss of camp life.

1For map of the area see A. A. J. iv, 163.