The Harvard Andean Expedition of 1957

Publication Year: 1958.

The Harvard Andean Expedition of 1957

Craig Merrihue

Inspired by the successes of Shipton

and Tilman with mountaineering expeditions in worthwhile mountain regions on limited means, I began contemplating two years ago a low-cost expedition to some twenty-thousanders in any part of the world whatever, so long as the cost ran to no more than three figures. It soon became apparent that the most practicable continent was South America and in that by far the most attractive area was the Cordillera Vilcanota in the southeastern corner of Peru, with its unclimbed peaks, unexplored terrain, and largely vertical scenery.

After the usual problems, the party evolved into Caspar Cronk, William W. Hooker, Steven Jervis, Earle R. Whipple, Michael Wortis, and Craig Merrihue, all of whom had climbed together in the Harvard Mountaineering Club. We flew to Lima by low-cost airplane. In Lima we bought our food and some equipment and then located a truck to get it all and three of us to Cusco. Pages could be filled describing the three-day trip into the 12,000-foot highlands along a desperate succession of hairpin turns on a narrow dirt road carved into the walls of cliffs which drop thousands of feet into rock gorges below. Eventually we reached Cusco, rejoined the others who had gone by air, and hired another truck to the edge of the mountains. There, near the native village of Ocangate, we were fortunate in meeting a friendly German youth, who was running a large hacienda during his parents’ vacation. He was abundantly helpful, providing us with his pickup truck, hiring for us mules at a third of the usual rate, and providing us with an Indian, Leandro by name, to guard camp. His hospitality was boundless, and we shall long remember the sumptuous banquets and splendid quarters with which we were provided.

In fact, life there was almost too pleasant; finally, we recalled our reason for coming to Peru and set out with our mules and light packs, Leandro in tow. He was to be our pot washer, chore boy, and chief bearer for our most essential item of mountaineering equipment, the 12-string guitar. Despite endless difficulties with our cut-rate mule driver, who managed at all times to devise the longest possible route between any two specified points, we set up a splendid Base Camp southeast of Ausangate. Located directly in the shade of several sheer rock and ice peaks, it was as spectacular a campsite as one could hope for. We selected an improbable-looking spire for our first attempt, on the basis of an easy route up the back. Since it was unnamed, we christened it Ccapana Peak after the hacienda where we received such gracious hospitality. The route was easy, so that the major problem was our own lack of conditioning, which was appreciable. But after stationing an intermediate camp at about 18,000 feet we were able to drag ourselves the remaining 1000 feet to the summit. We had entertained a vague notion of effecting a traverse down the west ridge of Ccapana and up the east ridge of the adjoining rock pyramid "Pachanta Peak.” But when closer inspection revealed that Ccapana’s west ridge was not a ridge at all, but rather a vertical cliff, we abandoned this mad plan.

Later in the summer we returned again to Pachanta. Four of us set out on what was planned as a reconnaissance, since no reasonable route was obvious. At the base of the pyramid, Wortis and Jervis went off to scrutinize the south face, while Hooker and I hoped to find a route to the col adjoining Ccapana. To our surprise, we found some excellent rock climbing on our route leading to the col, where it developed into an interesting ice climb to the summit. The constant step-chopping and belaying slowed progress, so that it was 4:30 by the time we were looking down the other side. We quickly left, the prospects for a night spent there being unattractive, and got to the col with just enough light remaining to select a rappel- lable route down the steep snow and ice slopes, avoiding entirely the rock- climbing sections. Slow but steady progress brought us back to camp before midnight.

During the next week we split into two groups of three, one of which went south to explore the great snowfields and investigate routes up the back of Jatunhuma, the massive unclimbed 20,000-er which loomed above Base Camp. Meanwhile the rest of us set out for a determined attempt at its promising north ridge. After establishing two advance camps on this peak, the highest under 18,000 feet, we set out at dawn for a summit try. The route was very interesting. The first part was a steep icy ridge, followed by a small overhanging ice cliff, above which were several hundred feet of ice slopes requiring constant step-chopping. The upper portion of the mountain was a maze of crevasses and huge séracs, one of which was somewhat disconcerting: it seemed to overhang the entire route and was roughly the size of Hancock Hall. Due to the unforseen difficulties, we reached the base of this huge block at 4:30 ; the lateness of the hour and the impossibility of getting over or around this block with our remaining two ice pitons forced our retreat. We resolved to return to this magnificent route with a vast supply of iron. We never did manage to get back, but the mountain was climbed later in the summer by Giinter Hauser’s group, who negotiated the summit block by direct aid through a large crack, in a neat bit of climbing. We returned to camp, making use of a full moon and our fixed ropes; and the next day we rejoined the others at Base Camp. Their time had been well spent in climbing three nearby peaks and in gathering valuable surveying data for that section of the range.

Ausangate was our next objective; at 20,500 feet, the highest peak in the range. It was climbed in 1953 by Heinrich Harrer by the southwest glacier. However, it was the northern ridges of the mountain that interested us most. We selected our route more or less by default, since most of this side of the mountain is sheer cliff. There is, however, an easy snow route which leads to the base of the north ridge, from the middle of which there seemed to be a very steep glacier, almost an ice-gulley, giving access to a snow ridge connecting directly with the summit ridge. Several days of relaying loads were required to establish a camp at the base of the glacier, but our first attempt to pack a camp higher at the base of the snow ridge was utterly stalled by a gigantic crevasse that spanned the entire glacier. Moreover, the cliffs on either side of the glacier began to spray the route with rocks of all sizes as soon as the morning sun hit them. The only safe procedure was to get through this hazard very early in the morning. With this in mind, Wortis and I managed a pre-dawn start, which almost failed to get out of the tent when Mike mistook the blue cheese for brown sugar, dumping it into the pressure cooker with the apricots—a startling combination. Despite this initial setback, we reached the crevasse ahead of the sun, carrying light packs for an anticipated bivouac. By climbing up an icefall at one end of the crevasse we were able to get above the obstacle and by noon we were just below the snow ridge. The summit ridge seemed only a few hours away, with the worst behind us. Then things began to happen. Mike was climbing over a gigantic ice block at the edge of a shallow crevasse, while I belayed him from a perch above on a soft snow wedge. Although the block had seemed as solid as the mountain itself, it suddenly broke loose with Mike aboard and began to vanish into the crevasse. My footing was on the soft snow, and I was slow in applying the belay, although in time to keep him above the block. No one was injured, but as we were both rather shaken we decided to turn back. We retreated to Base Camp and the hacienda for a much needed rest.

Again, because our host made things so pleasant and because there were fascinating native festivals in process, with dances, singing, bull fights, and ample consumption of Pisco (the national 100-proof fluid), many days passed before we returned to the mountains. After various frustra- tions because of our only-occasionally-sober mule driver, we set up another Base Camp in the northeast section of the range, one of the most interesting sections because of the unexplored areas and the dozens of fine peaks, of which only Colque Cruz (20,100 feet) and Huayna Ausangate (18,700 feet) had been climbed. In contrast to most of the Vilcanota, this part of the range is very inaccessible, with mile after mile of moraines, and enormous glaciers disadvantageously located. Our major objective was to reach the remotest section, "Shoe Col,” a broad snow col between two large but easy-looking peaks, "Shoe Peak” and Jatunrite, the latter just over 20,000 feet. With a camp on the col, both of these would be relatively short ascents. The col was expected to provide an ideal survey station.

The succeeding days were spent relaying loads, finding routes across glaciers and moraines, and fixing ropes over the rough spots; but eventually our goal was attained, the only serious problem being the deteriorating weather. I shall never forget the view from the col, spanning the huge snow fields to the south, the imposing Cayangate wall of rock and ice to the north, and to the east, long glaciers originating at the col. As the glaciers wound down towards the jungle they changed from shimmering white to dirty brown, gradually being transformed at lower altitudes into curved swaths of black and grey which extended, like the roots of a massive plant, across the grasslands before burrowing deep into the soil. There was a feeling of absolute isolation, due in part to the effort required to get there, but intensified by the shifting mists, snows, and dense clouds from which the surrounding summits would emerge and disappear so abruptly that their existance seemed ethereal.

After these two ascents we returned to Base Camp. While Casey and Mike went for the mules, Steve, Earle, and I decided to try for a beautiful little peak situated at the top of a long steep glacier. It was shaped like a thin wedge, with deep ice-flutings on the face and great overhanging cornices along both ridges. Although probably not over 19,000 feet, it looked like a fitting climax to our summer’s climbing. We referred to it as "Huayna Alpamayo” because of its resemblance to Alpamayo itself.

My original contention that the glacier would provide an easy route to the peak proved erroneous in the extreme because of an endless succession of wide crevasses, tenuous ice bridges, and the need for continuous belaying. The day of the summit try we were up at 5 A.M. and reached the col by the east ridge at 10. From that point the summit was about 800 feet above us, but the ridge was very steep, jagged, and corniced, with several pitches of bad rock. Steps had to be chopped the entire way, and constant belaying was essential. Due to these difficulties it was 5 o’clock before the leader set foot on the summit.

We were able to rapel from the steep summit-cone in the vanishing light, and progress from there was slow but steady by judicious use of the flashlight. Far out over the jungle to the east, constant flashes of lightning gave an unearthly aspect to the proceedings by capturing our forms in successive grotesque positions, like a black and white movie run at very slow speed. At 2 A.M. the flashlight was accidentally dropped, and an impromptu bivouac would have been forced had not the crescent moon appeared at that very moment. Slow but steady progress brought us to the col and thence to our camp, where under the first rays of the morning sun we fell exhausted into a few hours’ profound sleep. With the route selected, and light packs, we were able to make Base Camp the same day, and immediately decreed the summer’s climbing at an end.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Cordillera Vilcanota, southeastern Peru.

First Ascents:

Ccapana, 19,000 feet, 29 June 1957 (Merrihue, Jervis) ; 3 July (Merrihue, Jervis, Words, Hooker).

Pachanta, 19,000 feet, 16 July (Merrihue, Hooker).

Jatunhuma II, 19,000 feet, 8 July (Jervis, Wortis, Cronk).

Jatunhuma III, 19,000 feet, 8 July (Jervis, Wortis, Cronk). "Horrorhorn,” 19,200 feet, 9 July (Jervis, Wortis, Cronk).

"Shoe Peak,” 19,500 feet, 13 August (Cronk, Jervis, Whipple, Merrihue).

Jatunrite, 20,050 feet, 14 August (Cronk, Jervis, Whipple, Merrihue) ;

15 August (Hooker, Wortis).

Unnamed peak near Ausangate, 18,000 feet, 24 July (Hooker). Huayna Alpamayo, 19,000 feet, 20 August (Whipple, Merrihue, Jervis).

Second Ascent:

Campa I, 19,717 feet, 11 July (Hooker).


Jatunhuma, 19,994 feet, 8 July (Whipple, Hooker, Merrihue). Ausangate, 20,500 feet, 25 July (Whipple, Merrihue, Jervis, Wortis). (Altitudes are estimated as the survey data are not yet available.) Personnel: Caspar Cronk, William W. Hooker, Steven Jervis, Craig Merrihue, Earle R. Whipple, Michael Wortis.

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