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Yahuarraju and Rurec, Cordillera Blanca

Yahuarraju and Rurec, Cordillera Blanca

H. Adams Carter

Our expedition was not so much distinguished for the technical brilliance of our climbing ability as for the advanced age of its members. I sat, securely wedged between the highest tiny outcrop of dark red, rotten rock and the extremely steep snow slope, a few feet below the summit of 18,620-foot Yahuarraju. As I belayed my Brazilian friend, Domingos Giobbi, up to me and then above while he led through to the highest point and as I then tended the rope for the Peruvian Emilio Angeles, I made a quick calculation; the combined age for the three of us totaled 131 years.

Domingos Giobbi probably knows the southern Cordillera Blanca better than any man, dead or alive. There is no one, perhaps no two people combined, who have made as many first ascents in the sector from Huantsán south. He has also solved numerous geographical problems in the area. For a number of years he has been leading expeditions into the range, systematically working his way from south to north. Normally he enters the mountains with a mobile, small party, more often than not consisting of himself and several Peruvians. Though recruited from the ranks of the excellent porters of Huaraz, one or more may be elevated to the position of full-fledged climbing member. Thus it was that our fellow expedition partner, Emilio Angeles, was on the rope with us. Emilio is doubtless the foremost member of that indominable Angeles family which for years has been helping climbing expeditions to Andean summits. He was for us transport officer, sirdar, Tenzing, donkey-skinner and companion all rolled into one.

Yahuarraju had been intended as a warm-up. Our principal objective, Uruashraju, lay nearby to the south, but we never managed to tread more than its lower slopes; unprecidented bad weather kept us, like many another party in 1965, from our goal. Domingos, in his systematic exploration, by 1964 reached the group dominated by hulking, gorgeous Huantsán. He and Macario Angeles were frustrated in their attempt on Uruashraju some 300 feet from the summit because of unstable cornices on the south ridge. (A.A.J., 1965, 14:2, pp. 442-3.) The peaks at the head of the Quebrada Rajucolta would give us excellent viewpoints from which to judge the feasibility of routes onto Uruashraju from the north. And to the best of our knowledge, no other expeditions had climbed in the Quebrada Rajucolta.

On July 12 our pack train ascended the Quebrada Quillcayhuanca from Huaraz to the altiplano. Turning south, we traversed the high, grassy uplands below the mouths of the steep-walled canyons which drain the shimmering icy peaks above. At nightfall camp lay beside the torrent which flows down the Quebrada Shallap. The next day we crossed a high, grass-covered shoulder and dropped down the far side through flocks of sheep, tended by diminutive shepherdesses in brilliantly-colored blouses and voluminous skirts. Even to the broad-brimmed felt hats, their dress was the replica of their mothers’. The pointed spires of the Cashan group soared ahead and above us. Approaching the mouth of the Quebrada Rajucolta, we spied the gigantic form of Huantsán, framed by precipitous canyon walls. This magnificent peak was to overshadow and dominate our eyes and our lives until we left the region. From one canyon wall to the other ran the line of a massive stone wall, built to prevent the quebrada’s cattle from straying and to keep out unwanted flocks. Three round, thatch-roofed stone huts marked the gate, tended by an Indian family. As the keeper removed the huge padlock, he explained that not only was there Huantsán at the head of the valley, but also Yahuarraju, meaning "Snow Peak of Blood” in Quechua. It took us all afternoon to ascend the pastures of the quebrada into the gorgeous panorama of Huantsán. Though dwarfed by its giant neighbor, the elegantly sharp rock-and-ice spire of Yahuarraju (18,620 feet) came more and more into sight on the right at the valley’s end. As the name indicates, the rock was the color of dried blood.

At Base Camp on July 15 the porters, young Juan Mendoza, strong, Roman-nosed Octaviano Zúñiga and capable Simeón Natividad, shouldered mountainous loads, while Domingos, Emilio and I were content to carry less after our reconnaissance of the day before. We climbed the terminal moraine that traps the iceberg-filled, azure Laguna Rajucolta; tumbling glaciers plunge 7000 feet down Huantsán’s flanks to feed it ice and water. Beyond, a cattle path threaded its way up the canyon wall to a steep pasture 1500 feet higher. From there we climbed on rock and grass through a gap in the cliffs to emerge on one of this earth’s most beautiful spots. As always, Huantsán dominated everything, but just below us lay two brilliant blue-green lakes. The higher one bathed the foot of a cascade of ice which, framed by blood-colored rock, tumbled steeply off the needle of Yahuarraju. We descended a few hundred feet to pitch Camp I at 15,400 feet beside the upper Yahuarcocha.

The next morning we packed our camp up moraine and rock to the left of the cascading glacier. Eventually we stepped onto the ice and climbed past a few innocent crevasses. It was obvious that the time had come to camp, but the only flat space was at 16,750 feet on the snow-filled floor of a huge crevasse, delicately supported on the valley side by towering and apparently tetering séracs. As the only alternative meant digging for hours to hack out a tent platform on the steep slope, we quickly pitched camp.

Daybreak of the 17th found Domingos, Emilio and me on crampons, ascending the steep snow to a bergschrund, crossing it without too much difficulty and slabbing up a rock tower. Above it was necessary first to cut and then to kick steps up the hard-frozen snow. The lacy, vertical edge of the ridge, though not really corniced, gave little impression of stability and we stayed well below the cornice crack. On and on we slogged until we finally found ourselves at the bergschrund below the summit cone. Only on our side did it rise for a mere thousand feet. To our right, the west side of this perfect three-sided pyramid fell over 3000 feet to Yahuarcocha, and the south face plunged much farther on the left into the Quebrada Rurec.

Domingos crossed the schrund and led up the frozen, step snow. As we reached the first blood-colored patch of jumbled slate, I took over and continued up a number of pitches of mixed rotten rock and ice. We placed a number of ice screws for protection. Finally, just before noon, I perched in my belay nook between the highest rocks and the snow, while Domingos took the last lead. We knew that the cornice overhung the west face for some twenty feet, but until later we had no idea how far it extended out over the south face. Our cramped summit pictures must have been made well out beyond the start of that horrendous cliff.

When we regained the bottom of the summit pyramid, we looked across at the huge bulk of the neighboring peak of Rurec (18,685 feet). It lay beyond a col and up a mile-and-a-half-long snow plateau. All previous attempts had been made from the Quebrada Rurec and had failed. Here, we were in position to stroll to its summit, as dull as that might be from a technical point of view. It seemed now or never.

We started down into the hole between us and the plateau and up the other side. The snow was becoming mushy and now began to cling like gumbo mud to our boots. I had been leading, but all at once my strength gave out. Emilio took over breaking trail while I staggered along like a zombie. The slog took us an hour and a half, but finally we got there. For me Rurec is the most appropriately named peak in the Andes. It means in Quechua "Out yonder, farther away.”

Clouds kept playing hide and seek all afternoon. Huantsán scowled down at us from its lofty height. Domingos and Emilio stayed on Rurec’s summit until 4:30, hoping for better photographic weather, but I beat a retreat to my pack and strength-giving food a mile away. Eventually they came and we raced sundown to camp, a race which ended in a dead heat.

I shall not go on with our failure to climb very high on Uruashraju. We looked at the mountain closely from the Quebrada Rurec, from the slopes of the Punta Yanashallash, from the Quebrada Ichic Queñuash, but only for fleeting moments. Just about the only days with fine weather during the 1965 season had found us high above the Quebrada Rajucolta, climbing Yahuarraju and Rurec. We were luckier than most.

Summary of Statistics.

Area: Cordillera Blanca, Peru (near Huantsán).

First Ascents: Yahuarraju, 18,620 feet, and Rurec, 18,685 feet, July 17, 1965 (Domingos Giobbi, Emilio Angeles, H. Adams Carter).