Ascents in the Cordillera Blanca

Publication Year: 1955.

Ascents in the Cordillera Blanca


For nearly a century mountaineers have been attracted by the Andes in South America. Here they have found innumerable ice-covered giants, unclimbed, relatively accessible, with good weather predominating and free from the political protection of the Himalayas. Yet it was not until the Austrian expeditions in 1932, 1936, and 1941 that the most spectacular regions in the Andes, the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Huayhuash, were explored. These strong and capable expeditions brought back stories and pictures of some of the most remarkable mountains in the world. In the Cordillera Blanca alone there are approximately 28 peaks above the 6000- meter level (19,685 ft.). The Austrians climbed many of the highest peaks and published three excellent maps of these regions.

At the beginning of 1954, 8 of these 28 peaks remained unclimbed. From first-hand information and a study of the maps, it was found that 4 of these 8, the west and south peaks of Nevado Huandoy and the 2 peaks of Chacraraju, could be reached from one central canyon, the Quebrada Yanganuco. Five more peaks, Chopicalqui, Pisco, Yanapaccha, and the east and north peaks of Huandoy, could also be reached from the same canyon. So the ambitious plan was evolved of setting up a base camp at the head of the Quebrada Yanganuco and attempting at least most of these peaks. In addition we hoped to have sufficient time at the end of the summer to try the north and south peaks of Huascaran, the two highest summits in Peru.

With the decision reached as to our goal, we began in December the months of preparation necessary for every expedition. In our case the details were coordinated by vast numbers of air-mail letters, since the geographical distribution of the membership of the American Andean Expedition 1954 was nation-wide: Dr. Fred D. Ayres, Portland, Oregon; Dr. George Bell, Los Alamos, New Mexico; Alexander Creswell, Oakland, Oregon; Richard Irvin, Berkeley, California; David (Georgia) Michael, Athens, Georgia; W. V. Graham Matthews, Springfield, Massachusetts; John C. Oberlin, Cleveland, Ohio; and Leigh N. Ortenburger, Norman, Oklahoma. There were two interesting results of the nation-wide character of our expedition: no one member had met all the other members and no leader was chosen or even deemed advisable. When June finally arrived, Fred and Cres flew to Lima a week ahead of the main contingent of five in order to expedite our shipment of food and equipment through the intricacies of the notorious Peruvian customs. John Oberlin was due to arrive in Peru a week later than the rest of us.

At 5:00 A.M. on June 15th our DC-6 swooped down through coastal winter fog to the Lima Airport. After an encounter with the Peruvian press, we hurried to the Hotel Crillon, where we found a message from Fred and Cres stating that all our equipment had cleared customs. The only remaining task was to load our food and equipment on a truck and head for the mountains. This was unbelievable! No previous private expedition had ever had such incredible luck with the customs. Since the advance party had made all the necessary arrangements so efficiently, there was no need of our wasting time in Lima. That same evening George and Dick left Lima in our equipment truck for the town of Yungay at the foot of the Cordillera Blanca. The other three left the next morning, arriving in Yungay after a 12-hour drive. That evening was the first time as many as seven of us had ever assembled in one place at one time. We also met our porters: Eliseo, Felipe, and Miguel, whom I had known from the 1952 University of California Expedition; and Eugenio, the brother of one of our porters in 1952. These experienced and dependable men proved a great asset to us throughout the summer.

Our immediate problem in Yungay was to locate a man to supply us with burros for the 16-mile trip up the Quebrada Yanganuco where we would establish our Base Camp. Usually it takes about a week to get this kind of thing accomplished, but we were lucky in finding Alfredo Blanco who could supply us with 25 burros for the next day. Of course we had to pay about twice the standard price in order to get them in a hurry. By 3:00 A.M. of the 19th Alfredo and the porters had the burros loaded, some with loads approaching 200 pounds, and we were off. About noon we called the caravan to a halt at the previously selected site for our Base Camp. It was a pleasant wooded spot— a rarity for the Cordillera Blanca—at about 13,200 feet, with a spring nearby for safe drinking water. The first two days here were spent setting up tents, sorting equipment, and taking hikes to accustom ourselves to the elevation. At this time George suddenly came down with a high fever. He assured us that he would be all right since he had acquired the same malady on the 1950 Yerupaja expedition. For the rest of the summer our schedule was the same. We would calculate the number of days required for a peak, prepackage food for that number of days, and then set off in the attempt. Between climbs a day or two would be spent at Base Camp resting and enjoying the simple pleasures of green grass and flowers, fireworks, and bacon.

Since acclimatization is essential in climbing peaks of 20,000 feet and over, our plans were first to climb two small peaks. Our initial objective, Yanapaccha, 17,913 feet, was the smallest peak in the area but had never been climbed. On June 22nd, Ayres, Creswell, Irvin, Matthews, Michael, and I started out with the porters to establish a high camp so that the peak could be tried the next day. It was a beautiful one and we had spectacular views of Chacraraju (20,054 ft.) on our way to camp. In the early afternoon we reached the last comfortable place for a camp, short of the glacier, at 15,250 feet. Our porters left their loads here and returned to Base Camp with instructions to return in two days.

Up early the next morning we had a rare opportunity for sunrise pictures of the Huandoy group. After a few hundred feet of talus-covered slabs we gained the gentle glacier stretching up to the face which leads to the summit. The snow was soft—a condition with which we were to become quite familiar as the summer went on—and the step kicking was tiring, but we made good progress. Crossing one crevasse and climbing the steep final face, we found ourselves on the summit ridge no more than 100 feet below the summit cornice. To add to the dangers, not only was the ridge doubly corniced, but it was covered with 18 inches of definitely unstable powder snow. With words of encouragement from the second rope, I advanced toward the top after making certain that I had a good belay. Twice in the last 50 feet the top portion of the snow cracked and slid a fraction of an inch. Literally quaking in my boots, I reached a point close enough to the very top to satisfy me—I could touch the top with my axe and look over it to the Amazon jungle beyond. It was not a spot in which to linger. I hurried down to the others and we decided that there was no sense in exposing anyone else to these dangers. Sufficient time was left to make the descent leisurely and enjoyable. We were all pleased with our first success, but by 4:00 A.M. the next morning Dick had developed a bad cough. Not wanting to take the chance that it might develop into something more serious, we decided to break camp immediately and head down to base camp by flashlight.

Reaching the camp at 9:00 A.M., we were pleased to find that George had completely recovered from the “Yerupaja Blight” and that John had arrived. After a dose of antibiotics Dick, too, recovered by the next day. We were now at full strength for Nevado Pisco (18,875 ft.) and the East Peak of Huandoy (ca. 20,000 ft.). Two weeks’ food was prepackaged in polyethylene bags and the porters were sent up toward Huandoy on the first relay. On the 26th we all packed up the 3,000 feet to the site of our Advance Base Camp (16,000 ft.), which was the starting point for the climbs in this area. From here our route led across the receding Cook Glacier, which flows east from the main Huandoy saddle. On the other side a beautiful little tarn at our next campsite (16,400 ft.) was a welcome relief from the unstable boulders of the glacier. The reflection of Chopicalqui in this tarn is a rare sight. On reaching the saddle between the Nevado Pisco and the East Peak, the next day, I was struck by the changes since 1952. Since it was a month earlier after a winter of exceptionally heavy snowfall, 20 feet more snow lay on the level and the rocks of the East Peak were still plastered with snow.

Since I had climbed Pisco in 1952, the East Peak now attracted my interest. On the next day the other six started out for Pisco while Georgia and I headed for the East Peak. Trying the spur which leads to the north ridge, we ran into difficulty almost immediately with the snow- and ice-plastered rock. After some difficult climbing, involving pitons and shoulder stands, we topped the steep portion of the spur. But by now it was too late —to continue meant a bivouac for which neither of us was very eager. So we roped off the ridge and were soon back at camp. The others had already returned from a not uneventful day on Pisco. After they had passed through the one icefall en route, there were no more problems until just beneath the summit where they discovered a great crevasse completely separating them from the top. There was nothing to be done except to cut up the far side and this Fred did with great effort. But once again because of the press of time and the danger of the situation, it was thought inadvisable for more than one to go to the top. Fred descended and all six made their way back to camp. The next day was supposed to be a rest day, but the weather was so fine that we all climbed up a snow dome overlooking Lake Parron for a long session of photography. That evening the weather changed. The East Peak resisted one more attack because of the wind and snow during the two more days we waited at our camp for the weather to clear. On July 3rd we finally gave up and returned to Base Camp, leaving a cache of food at our Advance Base Camp for future attacks on the Huandoy group.

At base camp two days were consumed in prepackaging food and sorting equipment for the attempt on Chopicalqui. The northwest face of this peak, rising over 6,000 feet in an amazing succession of rock faces, icefalls, and finally ice flutes sweeping up to the summit, is the most prominent sight from the Quebrada Yanganuco. In 1932 the Austrians made the first and only ascent of this peak, at 20,997 feet, the fifth highest in Peru, by the west ridge. We hoped to repeat this climb. Our plan was to establish two camps on the way to a high camp at an 18,600-foot col, from which we could reach the summit in one day. Since the route to this col was, to say the least, not obvious, we drew lots to see who would go ahead of the main party to find the way. On July 6th two of the four “volunteers,” Fred and Dick, set out. They were to set up the first camp and then cross the glacier the next day to scout the route to our second camp. On the 7th Georgia and I followed and reached Big Boulder Camp about three in the afternoon. Two hours later Fred and Dick returned with word that they had found a good route across the glacier and an excellent campsite on the highest rock below the Chopicalqui glacier. The next day the four of us established Icicle Camp at 16,800 feet and in the late afternoon sunlight tried to envision a route through the icefall leading to our proposed Col Camp. We started up this icefall on the morning of the 9th. After a few misdirected efforts we reached a point from which we could see that there were no more problems in reaching the col. We then returned to Icicle Camp, where we found that the others had arrived according to schedule. It required the rearranging of many boulders to find tent space for the 12 of us that night.

The next morning the move was on. All of us carried loads up the willow-wanded route and after putting in 120 feet of fixed rope on the last steep section for the porters, we reached the col. Protection from the wind was the only thing that our Col Camp left to be desired. As we were eating our “hoosh” that night, the decision was reached to make the summit try early the next morning to take advantage of the excellent weather. Awake at 4:00 A.M. on the 11th, we were off by 5:30 A.M. Since we immediately ran into powder snow, everyone took turns leading and making the steps. It was a relatively broad ridge for the Cordillera Blanca and more tedious than difficult. That was true at least until shortly after lunch when we found ourselves face to face with the last 100 feet. George summoned himself to a great effort at this point and half kicked and half swam his way up the very steep powder and through the cornice to the summit. We may have set a record that day in that all eight of us reached this 21,000-foot summit, which commanded a magnificent view. When the mists temporarily cleared, we could see nearly the entire range from Huantsan (20,981 ft.) to the south, to Nevado Santa Cruz (20,535 ft.) to the north. Jubilant, we descended, reaching Col Camp just at dusk. By the evening of the 13th we were all back at Base Camp devouring such luxuries as canned pineapple and bacon.

Now we had only two objectives left in the Yanganuco: the Huandoy group and the incredible Chacraraju. It was not clear in what direction our efforts should be directed since we had not seen anything that looked much like a route on either peak. After some serious discussion the next day it was decided to split into two groups and reconnoiter both possibilities. Ayres, Bell, Michael, and Oberlin elected to study Chacraraju, while Creswell, Matthews, and I were to investigate the possibilities of Huandoy. As can be seen from the pictures, the Huandoy problem is simply that of reaching the main saddle (19,200 ft.), separating the South Peak (20,210 ft.) from the north Peak (20,981 ft.) and West Peak (20,853 ft.). On the east, the only side from which we had seen it, this saddle is protected by a 200 to 300-foot ice wall which was continually giving birth to avalanches. There seemed an outside chance of getting around this ice wall either on the right or left. The right side, however, had two more ominous ice walls overhanging it, so no one had much enthusiasm for this route. The left side looked so formidable that discretion dictated that, before we try it, we should at least see what the west side of the saddle had to offer. Two days later Cres, Graham, and I found a precarious perch on an 18,000- foot notch just to the southwest of the saddle and had an unobstructed view of the west approach. Our unanimous decision was that there was not even a moderately safe route here because of avalanche danger. We did see a very steep and difficult route leading to the summit of the South Peak, but this would have been of no value for the North and West Peaks. We reached Base Camp a day earlier than the Chacraraju reconnaissance party. The next afternoon we learned that they had had even less luck than we. They had found no feasible route. Chacraraju comes uncomfortably close to the “unclimbable” class. Gloom surrounded our discussions at the campfire that night. John Oberlin’s vacation time had now run out, so he began his return trip to the United States the next day.

More in desperation than anything else, George, Graham, Georgia, and I decided at least to have a look at the left side of the east approach to the Huandoy saddle. On July 21st we left for Advance Base with our porters. The next day we had a real problem on our hands. It was necessary to find a route up the complicated icefall in the lower Cook Glacier and then discover a relatively safe place for a camp. This was not easy to do since the entire upper part of the glacier seemed to be swept by avalanches at one time or another. In the late afternoon, however, we did find a campsite protected by an enormous crevasse on the uphill side. The theory was that this should swallow any avalanche descending upon the camp. After a worried sleep we got off at 9:30 A.M. to investigate the face above. Considerable step chopping had to be done and the going was slow. The final snow and ice leading to the bergschrund was very steep indeed, so to facilitate descent we installed the first of our fixed ropes at the bergschrund. George and I continued another 120 feet to the first of the rocks and put in another fixed rope anchored to a piton. We rappelled down to the 'schrund and made our way back to camp. We could see that although the route above was steep rock mixed with ice, it should go. However, fixed ropes would be required all the way for safe descent from such a route. The next morning George and I set out early with 700 feet of fixed rope to try to push the route to the saddle. After a hard day of climbing treacherously loose rock held together only by ice, we reached the base of a smooth slab at about 19,100 feet. Since we had now put up all the rope we had brought and it was late, we retreated, rappelling all the way down the face. On the 25th Graham and Georgia went up to finish the job. They reached the slab in good time and began work on it. To reach the top direct-aid climbing was required—this at over 19,000 feet! Quite an accomplishment! With no more great difficulty they reached the saddle after installing another 300 feet of fixed rope.

Our route to the col had been completed! And it had been a splendid example of team work. While the four of us were working on the face, Dick and the porters had been relaying food and equipment up through the icefall to our 18,000-foot camp. Cres had even gone all the way back to Base Camp to fetch additional supplies. On the 26th Fred, Dick, and Cres joined us at our camp at the top of the lower Cook icefall. It was decided that the route above was too difficult to permit carrying full pack (certainly too difficult and dangerous for our porters), so finally Graham, Dick, and I were elected to stay at the saddle for four days to climb as many as possible of the three peaks which are accessible from the saddle. Fred and Cres helped us carry up our gear.

Early in the afternoon of the 27th the saddle was reached without incident. I could see the whole route up to the high saddle (20,350 ft.) between the West Peak and the North Peak—an easy snow slope broken only by two obvious large crevasses. Since the snow was powder, I began to kick steps up toward the high col while Graham and Dick dug into the snow to give our tents some protection from the wind. I continued for a couple of hours and reached a point about half way to the high col. After a lengthy breakfast the next morning we peered out of our tents —there was the ever-present wind, together with cloud and light snow. The other two decided to wait another day before trying the peaks.

However, not wanting to waste the day, I thought I would go up and finish kicking steps to the high col in preparation for the climb the next day. As I neared the col, the snow became even worse than before, a breakable crust with knee-deep powder beneath. Before too long I was on the col looking down 6,600 feet to beautiful Lake Parron. Looking up at the West Peak (20,853 ft.), I could see that it was a straightforward matter of chopping steps up a steep snow face. The thought then occurred to me to kick and chop steps toward the summit until I tired, thus making things easier for the next day. Somewhat to my surprise, a couple of hours later I found myself at the summit. It was almost a mathematical point of snow with a fearsome view down the sheer north face. Unfortunately the cloud was still with me, so I had no view to the east. But, since this peak projects west of the main line of the range, I did have an uninterrupted view of the Callejon de Huaylas, the great valley that parallels the Cordillera Blanca. The descent was made without difficulty since I had cut enormous steps all the way.

Up the next morning at 9:30 A.M. we were astonished to see Fred, Cres, and Georgia arriving from below. They had decided to join us and climb the North Peak in one long day. And a long day it was! After reaching the high col, we had to cross only one more crevasse. But in order to reach the top we first had to cross the unexpected summit plateau since the highest point lay at the other end of this flat area. I believe that all of us who reached the summit that day agree that never had we had a summit view to equal it. With Santa Cruz, Artesonraju, and the Pucahircas to the north, the amazing Chacraraju to the east, Chopicalqui and Huascaran to the south, and the slender West Peak to the west, it was incomparable! The three who had come up from below had to hurry down to reach their camp before dark. It was quite a feat—they climbed from 18,000 to 21,000 feet and back in one day over a very difficult route. Graham, Dick, and I took our time on the descent. When we reached the high col, Dick decided to repeat the climb of the West Peak, following my steps. This he did in short order and soon we were back at our miserable little camp.

The next day, when it became clear that no agreement could be reached as to the proper route on the south peak, Dick and I descended to the 18,000-foot camp. Graham wanted to stay another day to make the third ascent of the West Peak. Late the next afternoon he joined us. By now we had all been at this camp so long that we were beginning to get shell shocked. If someone rustled a sleeping bag, the cry of “Avalanche!” would be heard and three people would try to get out of the tent door simultaneously. We were grateful to get back to Base Camp the next night. The ascent of the two peaks of Huandoy completed our objectives in the Yanganuco, so we sent two porters down to Yungay to get burros to bring all our food and equipment out of the mountains.

On the night of August 5th we were all back in civilization after 48 days in the Andes. We still wanted to try the South Peak (22,205 ft.) and North Peak (21,834 ft.) of Huascaran. Although both had been climbed three times, they were still worthwhile objectives. Elated by our successes in the Yanganuco, we elected to have the luxury of riding horses to our Huascaran Base Camp at 14,500 feet. It was a pleasant day, gaining some 6,000 feet on the back of a horse. On August 8th the seven of us, together with our porters, carried loads to establish the next camp which would be halfway to the great saddle (19,737 ft.) between the two peaks of Huascaran. Fred and Georgia had been chosen to stay at this camp and try to find a route to the saddle the next day. The rest of us returned to Base Camp to relay more supplies. We arrived from below the following day before Fred and Georgia returned from their exploration above. They brought back word a few hours later that the center of the icefall would not go—they had been blocked by a great wall of ice extending from one side of the saddle to the other. That evening we discussed the problem and concluded that the right side held out more hope than the left and that George, Cres, and I should go up and look for a route.

At about this point things became complicated. A party of Peruvian climbers joined us and set up their camp about 100 yards from ours. This was the same group which had climbed the South Peak in 1953, using the route found by the Mexican expedition. On the descent the Mexicans had left a fixed rope over a particularly difficult ice wall and this the Peruvians had used to make the ascent four days after the Mexicans. This time they were interested in the North Peak and planned to follow our route, if we found one, and use our steps and fixed ropes. Late on the morning of the 10th the three of us left, followed by the Peruvians with full packs. After some excellent ice work by George, we reached a point only a few hundred feet below the saddle; it was high enough to see that there were no further difficulties. We descended and put in 300 feet of fixed rope to make the route safe for the porters the next day. In the mean-time the Peruvians went on ahead and set up their camp at about 19,100 feet in order to attempt the North Peak. This they did while George, Graham, Georgia, Cres, and I, together with three of our porters, carried up equipment for our saddle camp (19,500 ft.). Dick had become sick with some kind of respiratory ailment and it was thought best for him to go down to Yungay before it became any more serious. Fred volunteered to accompany him down.

While the rest of us were pushing upwards the next day, we met the Peruvians returning from their successful climb of the North Peak. Luckily we found an excellent sheltered campsite just short of the crest of the saddle. Eliseo Vargas, one of our porters, accompanied us when we climbed the South Peak of Huascaran on August 12th. The first part of the climb showed a definite lack of route-finding talent. The South Peak rises in several tiers, usually with a large crevasse separating one tier from another. The problem was to get from one of these to the next. After spending several hours in a zig-zag route in the first 1,000 feet above the saddle, we finally broke out on the broad slope leading to the summit. We were now beginning to feel the effects of altitude. The breakable crust was exasperating. The slope seemed interminable. It was convex, so that every time we topped what we had fervently hoped was the summit, we were only disappointed by the view of more and more snow rising gently above us. Then I noticed that those who were ahead had stopped. When I measured off the last few steps to the top, I knew why the others had hurried down, spending only a very few moments on the summit. Up to now there had been a goodly wind, but certainly no worse than what we had encountered on Huandoy. At the very top there was the strongest wind I have ever met in the mountains. It was now 5:15 P.M. with only an hour of daylight left. There was no time to be lost. I took off my pack in which I was carrying my 4 × 5 Linhof camera, to take a few pictures, and to my astonishment, although it weighed about 20 lbs., it scooted along on the snow, pushed by the wind! After taking three pictures, as I recall, I rushed down the slope to join the others. Darkness overtook us about halfway down, but fortunately a full moon lighted our way. When we reached our camp at 8:30 P.M., we knew that we had put in a day’s work. George had hot tea waiting for us. Because of the failure of the batteries for his electric socks,* he had had to turn back at about 20,000 feet. There was no justice in this since it was largely because of George’s skillful ice work that we were able to reach the saddle.

In our absence a second Peruvian party had arrived and had set up a camp on the saddle, having used our fixed ropes and steps. They, too, wanted to climb the North Peak. About 10:00 A.M. the morning after our climb, one of them, Alberto Morales, appeared at our tent and said that two of his men had fallen into a crevasse and that we should come up and rescue them. Although very tired from our climb the day before, we went up to the saddle and pulled the two out of the crevasse. Fortunately for them, the crevasse had a floor and they were not injured. Even after this incident Alberto and another of his party, Alfredo del Arroyo, wanted to climb the North Peak, so Cres and I offered guide service for the next day. Two of our porters, Eliseo and Eugenio, also wanted to go with us, making six in the party on the 14th. The North Peak is a much more straightforward climb than the South Peak. We reached the summit in only four hours but were greatly disappointed by the clouds which enveloped us at the top. We had hoped to get some good photographs of the Huandoy group, but it was not to be. We found a large Peruvian flag near the top, which Alberto soon took down and replaced by an even larger one. The Peruvians couldn’t understand why we didn’t have at least one United States flag with us. After all, what good is it to climb a mountain without a flag?

This ascent ended the climbing of the American Andean Expedition 1954, the descent to Yungay being completed in two days. After packing up our gear for shipment back to the United States, we all went our separate ways, for the summer had come to an end. We could consider our expedition a success and we had fortunately avoided serious illness and mountaineering mishaps. The first ascent of the highest unclimbed peak in Peru, the West Peak of Huandoy, 20,853 feet, had been accomplished. We had not climbed the South Peak of Huandoy or Chacraraju. The former can certainly be climbed from the main Huandoy saddle, but Chacraraju is another story. It will require an all-out assault by a strong party who are willing to accept a certain amount of risk. To climb either of its two summits would be a major accomplishment. But the Cordillera Blanca will remain one of the finest climbing areas in the world, regardless of the fate of this particular summit, for it is only one spectacular peak among the many.

Summary of Statistics

Ascents: Yanapaccha, 17,913 feet, first ascent, June 23, 1954; Ayres, Creswell, Irvin, Matthews, Michael, and Ortenburger.

Nevado Pisco, ca. 18,875 feet, third ascent, June 29, 1954; Ayres, Bell, Creswell, Irvin, Matthews, and Oberlin.

Chopicalqui, 20,998 feet, second ascent, July 11, 1954; Ayres, Bell, Creswell, Irvin, Matthews, Michael, Oberlin, and Ortenburger.

West Peak of Nevado Huandoy, 20,853 feet, first ascent, July 28, 1954, Ortenburger; second ascent, July 29, 1954, Irvin; third ascent, July 31, 1954, Matthews.

North Peak of Huandoy, 20,981 feet, second ascent, July 29, 1954; Ayres, Creswell, Irvin, Matthews, Michael, and Ortenburger.

South Peak of Huascaran, 22,205 feet, fourth ascent, August 12, 1954; Creswell, Matthews, Michael, Ortenburger, and porter Eliseo.

North Peak of Huascaran, 21,834 feet, fourth ascent, August 14, 1954; Creswell, Ortenburger, porters Eliseo and Eugenio, Alberto Morales, and Alfredo del Arroyo.

Personnel: Dr. Fred D. Ayres, Dr. George I. Bell, Alexander E. Creswell, Richard K. Irvin, W. V. Graham Matthews, David Michael, John C. Oberlin, and Leigh N. Ortenburger.

*George’s feet had been frostbitten on K2 in 1953.