American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

South America, Peru—Cordillera Blanca, Alpamayo

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1967

Alpamayo. Our party consisted of John Amatt, Dave Bathgate, Terry Burnell, our cameraman, Ned Kelly, Roy Smith and myself. We assembled in Huaraz at the beginning of June and proceeded with all our equipment down the Santa River valley to Molinapampa, where we were held up by the absence of a bridge over the river and a complete lack of donkeys at the Hacienda Colcas. Once away, we placed Base Camp after four days of march in the upper Alpamayo valley at 15,000 feet at the same place as several previous parties. From there a very steep scree and rock gully led to a col, named by the French in 1951 the Col des Drus, near which they had camped. However we placed our Camp I on the edge of the glacier at 16,000 feet. The icefall proved difficult. A close look persuaded us to abandon our original plan of making a direct climb up the northwest ridge for two reasons: 1) the ridge joined the north ridge before the north summit and was menaced by cornices in the last section; 2) it would be hard to film. Instead we climbed to the north col and placed Camp II at about 18,000 feet. From there we followed the north ridge, which proved continuously steep; on the first part we could follow the rock band protruding into the east face and on the last section we found very steep snow and ice of 60° to 70°. In order to be able to film the whole ascent, we used much fixed rope and eventually had it on most of the route, some 4000 feet in all. Our admiration for the French grew. They had tried something which in 1951 was of outstanding difficulty. We found traces of their presence on the rock and embedded in the ice, such as Balaclava helmets, ice pegs, a north-wall hammer, etc. We were aware of their claim of making the summit of course and the subsequent refutations of that claim by Günter Hauser, who stated that his expedition had made the first ascent of Alpamayo.

Eventually we had prepared the route sufficiently for filming. Our first party climbed to the north summit and from there to the main summit, which is by far the most dangerous and serious section of the climb. David Bathgate and Roy Smith were on July 9 the first people of our expedition to reach the main summit. Terry Burnell and I went with them as far as the north summit in case of any untoward happening. Two days later we completed filming and Terry Burnell and I, and John Amatt and Dave Bathgate went to the main summit. Our conclusions were that the French definitely did not climb to the main summit of Alpamayo. Günter Hauser in our view was certainly correct when he argued that both from their accounts and pictures, though acting in complete good faith, they made at best only the north summit.* I have with me as I write the French book and I have just reread the account. It was seven o’clock at night before they reached what they believed to be the summit. It was dark and the weather was none too good. From there the ground dips slightly down. Then follow fantastically airy and dangerous traversing and hard climbing into and out of a crevasse, which land one below the final climb to the main summit, which is nearly vertical for the last section. The top itself is so pointed that it is impossible for more than one to stand there at once. All this would leave an indelible impression and they would have certainly written about it. Also, without forward preparation, it would be highly improbable that one could go from the north col to the summit in one day. I am certain the French never even knew of the existence of a main summit several hundreds of feet from the north summit. Although Andean mountains may change from year to year, the summit conformation is approximately the same as on Hauser’s first ascent in 1958.

Dennis Gray, Alpine Climbing Group of Great Britain

*M. Raymond Leiniger was kind enough to send us this statement: "The idea that the northern summit was not the highest point never entered cur minds. When I set foot on the northern summit, night had already fallen and the bad visibility prevented my discovering my error. Below me the steep snow descended towards the ridge which was lost in the darkness.” We are very grateful to him for this explanation, which finally clears up this long disputed ascent.— Editor.

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