American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Up Yerupajá

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1951

Up Yerupajá

W. V. Graham Matthews and David Harrah

THE Cordillera de Huayhuash, less than 20 miles long, contains some of the most spectacularly difficult peaks in Peru—a country where such peaks are the rule rather than the exception. Less than three decades ago, the mountaineering challenges of the range were completely unheralded; and even today mention of the Huayhuash to a Peruvian is apt to bring only the response that one is doubtless mispronouncing the name of some other range. But recently climbers have come to know about the Huayhuash through the work of O. M. Miller,1 William Jenks,2 and especially Dr. Hans Kinzl and Erwin Schneider, who contributed much knowledge of the country3 and a fine map published by the D.A.V. in 1939. The dominating summit of the range is Yerupajá (21,769 ft.).

Although American climbers had been discussing the possibilities of an expedition to Yerupajá for several years, and the Harvard Mountaineering Club had organized an expedition for 1948, it was not until June 1950 that the Harvard Andean Expedition arrived in Lima. Denied the blessing of any mountaineering club, the expedition nevertheless had managed to complete successfully the work of organization and preparation, thanks largely to the perseverance of George I. Bell and Austen F. Riggs. By the middle of May, nearly a ton of equipment was on its way to Callao. Less than a month later, the advance guard, Bell and Riggs, were in Lima, charged with the task of guiding the expedition’s supplies through the labyrinthine red tape of the Peruvian Customs.

By June 26th all was in readiness. The remaining climbers, Charles C. Crush, David Harrah, W. V. Graham Matthews and James C. Maxwell, had deplaned in Lima. In addition, Sr. Juan Or- mea and his son Tomás were ready to handle the expedition’s ornithological work; and Jack Sack, who served as United Press correspondent for the expedition, was already filling the local press with fables of our activities and ambitions. It should perhaps be stated that the expedition indulged in this romance with the U.P. not out of any wanton desire for publicity, but in the hope that thereby some of the expenses might be defrayed—a hope which was never fulfilled. In the early evening of June 26th, the expedition lumbered out of Lima in a heavily-laden truck very kindly lent by the Inter-American Geodetic Survey.

After camping by the roadside, we awoke in glorious sunshine— the first we had seen since arriving in Peru. A brief visit to Paramonga secured breakfast and gas; and, thus fortified, we began climbing slowly through the arid valleys into the Cordillera Negra. The highway, a rather good dirt and gravel road, soon became spectacular; but a broken fan belt and a hot motor forced us to camp once again by the roadside, heartbreakingly close to the pass above Conococha, a lovely trout-filled lake which lies at an altitude of 4020 meters.

During the course of the next day, with the assistance of passing truckers, we got rolling again, dropped down past Conococha, crossed the Pampa de Lampas, and began the terrifying descent down the new highway to Chiquian. To the southeast the whole Cordillera de Huayhuash jutted abruptly heavenwards, while farther to the north loomed the peaks of the Cordillera Blanca. Just before dusk we eased our truck through the narrow cobbled streets of Chiquian, whose inhabitants, clad in ponchos of somber hue, evoked thoughts of Shangri-La. We were soon ensconced in the Hotel Bayer and immediately began making arrangements for bestias—pack and riding animals—a process which was to take five days, primarily because of a national election in which it was compulsory to vote. No one was willing to leave Chiquian until after July 2nd. Although we fretted at the delay, it probably helped us to acclimatize. On the other hand, indiscretions in eating the local food may well have been the source of the intestinal troubles which plagued the expedition at various times and in baffling ways for the remainder of the trip. How many of our ailments were due merely to soroche or mountain sickness, and how many to other causes, such as contaminated food, remains a puzzle.

From Chiquian one could obtain a fine view of the west face of Yerupajá. Through field glasses the upper portion looked terrifying indeed, and even from this distance the rifts in the cornices, which were later to prove the key to the climb, were plainly discernible. In a moment of inspired irony Harrah dubbed the mountain “Old Round-Top,” an appellation which long continued to be popular. Time passed pleasantly enough at Chiquian, with acclimatizing hikes, repacking of supplies for the mules, and innumerable games of sapo. The weather was fine, though chilly whenever the brilliant sunshine was absent. Yerupajá itself, however, was often hidden in clouds.

Finally, on July 3rd, with 17 heavily-laden donkeys and various mules and horses for riding, the expedition left Chiquian amid the curses of the muleteers and the good wishes of the populace. The trail wound steeply down to the Rio Chiquian, continued downstream through the tortuous gorge, crossed by a rude bridge, and then alternately climbed and descended beside the Rio Llamac, a tributary of the Chiquian. At the small town of Llamac, where we stopped for the night, the gobernador, apparently one of the few sober denizens, kindly allowed us to sleep in the town hall. After a fitful night enlivened by the eerie music of the drunken Indians, we set off for Jahuakocha with the assurances that it was only a four-hour trip. The trail zigzagged steeply up the ridge behind Llamac, crossed a small plateau and eventually gained the pass, then contoured more gently down to the valley floor below Jahuakocha. Eight weary hours after leaving Llamac we arrived at Base Camp, too tired to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Base Camp was pleasantly situated at the eastern end of the lake at an altitude of 4066 meters, or somewhat over 13,300 feet. Behind camp lay Solterahanca, a glacial lake impounded by moraines; and above it rose the steeps of Rondoy, from whose fluted ice-cliffs avalanches frequently thundered. Adjacent to Rondoy on the south stood the impossible Jirishanca, followed by Yerupajá Chico, and then, towering above all, the shimmering summit and west face of Yerupajá.

While the route upwards from the Yerupajá-Rassac col was de- pressingly clear, there were several possibilities as to the best way of getting onto the glacier and thence gaining the col. Accordingly, we divided into small reconnaissance parties to determine the most feasible route. It was eventually decided that mules could get the loads the highest by going up the Rassac valley, parallel to the Yerupajá Glacier, and then dumping the loads as high as possible on the steep

grass slopes just north of Rassackocha. Cantankerous mules and negotiations with their owners delayed matters somewhat; but by the afternoon of July 9th most of the loads had been dumped, and that evening Bell, Harrah and Matthews, carrying sizable packs from the dump, established Boulder Pocket Camp at about 15,200 feet.

W.V.G.M.

II

In general, the 1950 season in the Huayhuash must have been the finest in years. It certainly gave us weather ideal by any standard. Our first night at the boulder pocket, however, was exceptional, with an inch of snowfall. Matthews, sleeping out, caught some sort of chill and was hamstrung by sickness from then until the last days. Harrah and Bell set out to establish the next camp, along the route pioneered by Kinzl and Schneider—crossing the deeply-clefted northern shoulder of Rassac Ridge and then following its eastern ledge- system south to the edge of the Yerupajá Glacier. Our Glacier Meadow Camp, one easy load-carrying day from the boulder pocket, was pitched on the moraine at 16,000 feet. This camp was plagued by dirt, and it was distant from a water supply, but it had a grandstand view of the ice flutings and avalanches on Rondoy, and of the sun rising out of the summit cauldron of Jirishanca.

Bell and Harrah returned to the dump for another load, reoccupied the glacier camp, then pushed on for the col between Yerupajá and Rassac. The route followed the moraine for a mile, took to the glacier above its highest icefall, then ascended its gentle upper portion a mile and a half. The glacier was in excellent condition, hard, not requiring crampons, and permitting almost a straight-line route. Occasional avalanche danger could be minimized by a speedier pace. The safest campsite was a small platform, actually a schrund-bridge, 20 feet below the sharp crest of the col at 18,800 feet. Next morning the glacier camp resembled a movie set, with everyone converging at once: Bell and Harrah returning from the col, Crush and Riggs bringing loads from the boulder pocket, Maxwell emerging from a tent, and our Indian porters appearing first as silhouettes on the ridge and then as sweaty demanders of payment at the growing supply pile. We regretted that we had no scales, that we had not fixed prices in advance, and that we had not brought boots or bags so that the Indians could carry for us on the ice.

Schneider, who had tried for the summit from the col, later recommended placing a higher camp near the south peak. Our Swiss friends in Lima suggested that the high camp consist merely of an ice cave, sleeping sacks and food for a one-night stand. Our plan, intended to secure the maximum safety and opportunity for acclimatization, was to stock and tent the col for six men for two weeks, and stock and tent a high camp for four men for one week. This plan had to be compromised out of all recognition: because of sickness, no more than three men were ever at the col at one time. The safety factor was maintained, however, in terms of the stocks established at these camps and our refusal to depend on any but the most favorable weather.

The next day Bell felt ill; but the four healthy members carried loads to the col, and Riggs and Harrah stayed there to make the next advance. Just over the crest the col dropped abruptly to the Yerupajá-Siulá basin. On the tent side the col dropped gently to the glacier, led the eye along the glacier between the enormous glaring flanks of Yerupajá and the stone-swept ruins of Rassac, past Rondoy and far northward to the magnificent tower of Huascarán. During the daily seven hours of sunlight at the col, our light meters registered “four times the glare of a bright day at the beach.” At night there were frequent gusts of wind: we heard them swoosh like artillery shells as they came through a near-by pass, then—after a silence— explode violently on the two tents. Several members found that seconal pills made little difference to their sleep. At this altitude our appetites only gradually shifted gears from the carbohydrates-and- milk to the liver-potatoes-and-cheese speed. Altogether gone was even the thought of regaining the butter-sardines-mincemeat level. The Coleman stoves worked well; the nylon air mattresses sweated too much. Of the three tents used on the ice—an army mountain, a co-op poplin, and Gerry Cunningham’s nylon mountain tent—the “Gerry tent” proved far the best in every way.

Riggs and Harrah acclimatized for two days, studying weather and routes. The crest of the southwest ridge, though safe from avalanches, was too sharp and corniced to be climbed with a pack. The only alternative route lay on the face, parallel to the ridge, tortuous and exposed, but fairly easy on hard snow. No avalanches or recent avalanche tracks had been seen anywhere on the west face of Yerupajá for three weeks; and our binoculars revealed a campsite, apparently protected from avalanches, on the face near the south peak. The route up the broken ice face was so complicated that, using a sketch made from below and following the many landmarks, we could not have got lost.

At 3.30 one windy morning, after a sleepless night, Riggs and Harrah started up the face. Almost immediately Riggs succumbed to the altitude: he was cold and nauseated, and had little muscular coordination. The next morning they tried again, starting at 7.30, but with exactly the same result. Riggs, till then apparently the strongest in the party, proved how difficult it is to predict how an individual will adjust to altitude. Harrah carried the packs up several hundred feet, and welcomed Crush to the col as Riggs’ replacement. Crush was still sick from Chiquian (intestinal) and Base Camp (bronchial), and after one miserable night had to return below—a fine mountaineer who never had the chance he deserved at Yerupajá.

Bell, still slightly sick himself, now came up. Next morning he and Harrah followed the route-sketch up through the ice cliffs, schrunds, traverses, corners and terraces of the face. After six easy hours they reached the high campsite, undoubtedly the only really safe campsite high on the mountain. Any camp on the ridge crest would have been exposed to the weather and difficult to retreat from in a storm. The site chosen was protected from the wind and avalanche danger by an ice overhang. To facilitate ascent of the difficult slope immediately above the camp, they planted an ice piton and fixed rope. The view from the tent extended from the Pacific past the Cordillera Blanca to the beginnings of the Amazon jungles. At evening the sun did not just set; it swooned. They made the mistake of trying for the summit the next morning, and Bell could go only 200 feet. If anyone deserved the summit it was Bell, who had organized the expedition and established all the camps on the mountain. It was the load Bell carried to the high camp that enabled Maxwell to have his chance. Bell went down while Harrah and Maxwell waited at the col to make their bid.

Fortunately, four days of light clouds enabled Maxwell to acclimatize. Then the pair reoccupied the high camp with food for six days. They waited one day, then started for the top—and turned back. Maxwell was not yet acclimatized. Because three days’ food supply had to be saved for a storm, the following day was the last possible day for a summit try. Early intimations of frostbite caused some anxiety: Maxwell had not fitted his crampons to his boots before the trip, and cold feet had forced him to change boots on the way to the high camp. Harrah’s feet were feeling colder every day, undoubtedly an effect of “deterioration” (14 consecutive days above 18,000 feet). To minimize the immediate danger of frostbite, they decided to wait till 10.30 for the the morning sun,4 trusting that the full moon would make up later for the loss of light at the start. The temperatures were warm, never below zero by the minimum thermometer at high camp. They expected to climb in Yerupajá’s common light cloud plume. There was only one possible route: to gain the summit ridge just north of the south peak and follow the narrow ridge to the main summit. Knowing it was a gamble, they yielded to the temptation to travel light—a mistake, as it turned out. Actually, their biggest concern was cornice accidents, for the party had talked with Sigrist in Lima about the cornice accident on Alpamayo (Cordillera Blanca) in 1948, and the summit ridge of Yerupajá is corniced the whole of its length. They would use 150 feet of ?-inch nylon and carry three ice pitons.

Next morning, July 31st, they started up once again. At first the going was very slow, Harrah using his ice-hatchet and ice-hammer as claws on the steep slopes. The only break in the cornices was provided by a crevasse running almost parallel with the ridge line. They stemmed 50 feet down into the crevasse, walked 300 feet along what proved frequently to be only a false bottom, then reascended the crevasse wall to find themselves on the ridge crest. They decided that in case of trouble this crevasse would be the place to bivouac. The ridge varied between 20 and 30 feet in width, corniced on the left and dropping steeply on the right. Even in the fog there was no route- finding problem—just slogging upward in mushy snow along what seemed the safest line.

At 3.15 they were at the great final pyramid. Harrah’s doubts about the danger of the place were overcome by Maxwell’s cheery assurances. With extreme care they ascended the 300-foot corner, using both double-axe technique and occasional rocks for holds. From the top of the rocky face, the final summit ridge led gently upward another 100 vertical and 300 horizontal feet. It was very narrow and everywhere corniced. Since they were so near the top and in so dangerous a place, they should have called this point the summit. They decided, mistakenly, that careful belaying would justify a traverse to the highest point. Actually, in places like this, the belayer is as likely to fall as the climber (e.g., the Alpamayo accident). At 5.30 they stood one at a time on the top, a flat cornice. The clouds broke, revealing a view more of heaven than of earth.

After taking a few photographs, they began the descent, with two hours of sunshine left and the high camp three hours away. Harrah joined Maxwell at one belay platform, and Maxwell said he was going to take a picture. The platform, about seven feet wide, appeared to be solid, but seemed as subject to avalanching on the east as to cornice-fracturing on the west.

Almost immediately, a small section broke away beneath Harrah; and he was pitched over the western precipice. Fortunately, the 120 or more feet of rope were neatly coiled; and Harrah fell the entire distance, giving Maxwell time to grab his axe as it, too, started to fall, throw himself prone on the ridge top, and drive the axe into the snow. (There are arguments both pro and con jumping over the other side of the ridge.) Fortunately also, the pull was straight down, rather than outward; and the rope sawed into the snow, acting as a dynamic belay. Harrah, though festooned with pitons, crampons and axes, was not punctured by them, because he fell free about 50 feet and then hit nothing worse than 75-degree ice. Aware of being battered by falling ice blocks, he realized vaguely that this was what the Alpamayo accident must have been like, that this was going to result in two deaths, and that this was the nemesis for hubris.

Without surprise, without gratitude, he felt a sickening jerk at his middle. The stretch in the nylon had absorbed much of the shock; his ribs had absorbed the rest. Atop the ridge, Maxwell had been jerked forward three times. Between two of the jerks, he had had to pull out his axe and drive it in again farther forward. A fourth jerk would have pulled him over, for by that time his hands were six inches from the edge. All of this had taken place in less than three seconds.

“Slack!”

“I can’t help you.”

Looking down, Harrah could see the sunlit ice flutings ending in an overhang a hundred feet below; beyond the overhang he could see only the glacier, already in shadow, 4000 feet below. With an automatic desperation, he dug his two axe-claws into the ice and began working upward, sometimes without footholds, sometimes able to place his crampons on opposite walls of an ice fluting to rest for a moment or to stem upward. In about 45 minutes he reached the crest of the ridge, rather tired and expecting to cough up his ribs, piece by piece.

“We’re in for it.”

One of Maxwell’s gloves had gone down; it was replaced by one of several extras carried for an emergency. The two climbers shortened leads. Presently, just as Maxwell jumped back, another cornice went down. Harrah’s ribs were giving him some pain, and he was beginning to experience the “extra man” delusion. They climbed so cautiously down the rocky corner that it was dark by the time when they arrived at the safe climbing on the broader ridge. Harrah held that there was enough moonlight to see by, that on the ridge they could not get lost, and that they should keep moving while they had the strength. Maxwell held the opposite views, and twice stopped for half an hour to dig an ice cave. It was during these delays that the major injury from frostbite occurred.

At midnight they were at the western end of the ridge crevasse, barely one hour above the high camp. They had not the strength, however, to descend the final steep slopes with safety. Beneath an ice chockstone in the bottom of the crevasse, Maxwell found an ice cave, cramped but warm. They crawled in and removed their boots. Since Maxwell’s socks were dry, he wrapped his feet in his parka and relaxed, resignedly. Harrah’s feet had become soaked from trail-breaking, and his socks had been frozen on the slow descent. Here was the major defect in equipment: gaiters would have kept the snow out of his boots,5 and extra socks are essential in even the lightest pack. It is certain, however, that even with gaiters some frostbite injury would have been sustained. Harrah wrapped his feet, and thawed and dried his socks over a candle flame. (Try doing this with a flashlight!) At this altitude the Peruvian-made matches refused to light. What did work were the tallow-coated matches Harrah had carried in his emergency “junk bag” since 1942.

At 10.00 the next morning they crawled out into the sunlight and, in an hour, were at the high camp. After brewing hot lemonade, they sank into a stupor, too far gone to bother with foot-massage. Harrah wished that they had brought morphine instead of the ineffective demerol. Twenty-four hours later they forced their swelling feet into their implacable boots and began packing for the descent. Through rifts in the clouds they saw their four companions on the glaciers far below. Shouts of “Help!” were acknowledged by the four, who had last seen the pair of climbers as they disappeared upward in the fog 54 hours before. They guessed correctly that Harrah and Maxwell were having trouble with their feet, and determined to start up the following day. In this tenuous support of those high by those below lay the gravest organizational defect of the expedition: an automatic relief system should have been worked out in advance.

Harrah and Maxwell started down, carrying sleeping bags as insurance against disaster. Maxwell had to rest every 25 steps. Route- finding in the fog took Harrah’s mind off his ribs. Below the cloud level they shouted again, and their companions met them on the slopes above the col in a most welcome reunion. Maxwell stayed at the col that night; Harrah went on to the glacier camp. On the following day Matthews (who had almost not accompanied the expedition, because of a knee operation in the spring) performed a walker’s tour de force—from the glacier camp to Chiquian in one day, accompanied from Base Camp by Sack. They arranged for mules, and for a taxi to transport Harrah to Lima.

A danger of frostbite is that the feet will “come to” and be too painful to walk on, that they will swell beyond boot size, and that infection will set in. Harrah’s feet never “came to,” and Crush’s expert application of Borofax dressings kept out infection; but Harrah had to walk to Base Camp in boots three sizes larger than his own. After two days on mules and a nine-hour taxi ride, Crush deposited Harrah in the Clinica Anglo-Americana in Lima on August 8th. Since Maxwell’s feet were less seriously injured, he came out a week later with the rest of the expedition. The Clinica and its American surgeon, Dr. Ned Raker, were excellent. Harrah lost all his toes; Maxwell, half of three toes. The difference may be attributed to the fact that Harrah’s feet had got wet, and that he had deteriorated, through lack of oxygen and malnutrition due to loss of appetite, for a longer period than Maxwell.

Before, during and after our climb, the press emphasized the sensational aspect of it: the mountain was “Butcher of the Andes.” Perhaps this sort of thing is inevitable in the case of a spectacular accident on a spectacular peak. Such publicity, however, is harmful to mountaineering in general—and, in particular, to the members of the expedition, whose attitude from first to last was that safety must come first. We realize that we climbed on the shoulders of Schneider, and that good luck with the weather and snow conditions was the major factor in our success. Most important, we realize the value of the lessons learned concerning equipment, cornices and support-sys- tems. We hope that these lessons will benefit others besides ourselves.

D.H.

1 “The 1927-1928 Peruvian Expedition of the American Geographical Society,” Geographical Review, XIX (1929), 1-37.

2 “Climbs in the High Andes of Peru,” A.A.J., IV (1941), 157-76.

3 Kinzl, “Die Kordillere von Huayhuash (Peru),” Zeitschrift des D.ö.A.V., LXVIII (1937), 1-20.

4 Apparently a common tactic on the western slope of the Andes. One party on Huascarán started for the top at 11.00.

5 Tricouni makes a type to fit all boot sizes.

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