American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Cashan Oeste

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1968

Cashan Oeste

Jack Miller and H. Adams Carter Carter introduces the expedition:

Life. is full of surprises. Several years ago, when I first visited Huaraz, I was amazed by an incredible ice spire that rose on the right of the arc of peaks of the Cordillera Blanca that hem in the provincial capital. Through the field glasses it looked even sharper. How could it stand? How could it rise to such a point? "That’s Huantsan Chico,” the knowing ones in town told me, "recently climbed by the Scots.” I dismissed it as what might have been a magnificent objective, but one that had already been ascended.

But the "knowing ones” did not know. In 1965 when the Brazilian Domingos Giobbi and I entered the Quebrada Rajucolta, we were surprised to find that this ice needle which guarded the southern entrance to the canyon could not be Huantsan Chico or more properly Shacsha*. The latter, though actually at the southern end of the line of peaks, is hidden from town. The sharp spire seen from town had been misidentified and so remained unclimbed and unchallenged. It is 18,705-foot Cashan Oeste, the westernmost peak on the jagged ridge which parallels the Quebrada Rajucolta on the south. The ridge passes over several lesser summits until a mile and a half to the east it rises to Cashan Este, which is about the same altitude as its western brother.

Through misidentification one of the finest of the range’s peaks had been left untouched. It is no surprise, therefore, that two years after our discovery, Domingos and I were back with a crew of enthusiastic climbers: Jack Miller and his wife Sandra, Dave Bernays and my son Larry, all veterans of Andean expeditions, and Don Anderson and Jeff Duenwald, who had Alaskan first ascents to their credit. Our head porter, Emilio Angeles, might deservedly be called the "Tenzing of the Andes”; he was ably supported by his brother Victorino and by Glicerio Henestroza, a 19-year-old pillar of strength and technical skill, who is the most promising of the growing corps of Peruvian porters. It was a strong team, and we needed it. Unfortunately we were weakened at the end of the first week when circumstances in Brazil called Domingos Giobbi home.

We were in for another surprise. Two years before, the great northwest face was a precipitous but smooth sheet of ice. The west ridge rose unbroken to the western summit. When we saw it again in 1967, changes had taken place. An enormous chunk of the face had fallen, leaving a colossal gash across its whole width. On the west ridge there was a hundred-foot overhanging step in the ice. The climb would be much more difficult.

This introduction would not be complete without a word about the enchanting enchanted lake where at 14,400 feet we pitched Base Camp. That Tururucocha ("stony lake”) was enchanting, nestled on three sides against cliffs and dammed on the other by roches moutonnées and partially hidden by quenual thickets, was to be understood. It was more surprising to find that it was enchanted. The shepherds who lived closest were horrified to find where we hoped to camp. We had no visitors, which kept us from worrying about pilfering. But we never found out what manner of enchantment kept the lake in its spell. Emilio had once before approached an enchanted lake with an Austrian expedition. They were warned, as we were, but that time the danger was more concrete: six-foot-long frogs of wondrous colors—scarlet, blue, green, yellow, purple—would emerge from the waters to devour them. When not dissuaded, Emilio and his companions were asked when they would arrive. That particular day, all the local inhabitants lined the surrounding hills to see the frogs’ feast.

Tururucocha was disappointingly devoid of amphibians.

Miller describes the Climb of Cashan Oeste:

From the first day in Huaraz the mountain was always there. We could see it from town, its glaciers white and glistening against the brown Peruvian hills and blue sky in that kind of beauty peculiar to the Cordillera Blanca. Compared to the nearby giants, Cashan Oeste is a small peak, only 18,705 feet, but makes up for that by being steeper, almost spire-like. Cashan, in Quechua, means "spine,” cactus spine,* which it is when seen from a distance. But, being the ones to climb the mountain, we had to take a closer view. Study by binoculars revealed it to be more like a steep-sided pyramid, with a thin ridge on top that formed the mountain’s double summit. All sides of the mountain appeared to be impossible walls of granite and ice, except the northwest face plastered with hanging glaciers from top to bottom. The mountain was always there; when we were in the cafes and hotel, out of sight of the peak itself, we had the ground and air photos. By the time we set out each man had, in his own mind, matched himself—his experience and skill, and his courage—against what he thought he would meet on the mountain.

Perhaps with all difficult peaks it is the same: the veterans are cautious and the youngsters eager. Ad Carter called it the "steepest peak in Peru,” and Bernays was doubtful about getting past the great schrund on the northwest face. "I don’t know,” said Don Anderson. "It doesn’t look so bad.” "Aw it’s a piece of cake,” I said, thinking a little braggadocio might keep things optimistic. Jeff went one better: "If we wanted to, we could do a direttissima.” He had planned for this climb since last winter and was of no mind to fool around. But Giobbi was saying, "Well, it is something to explore and know a peak, even if you don’t climb it.” He made his point: who really knew what we would do with this mountain?

A leisurely three-day trip took us to a hidden lake the natives believed "enchanted,” at the foot of Cashan. Here we set up Base Camp. If the veterans were apprehensive about the climbing they had certainly justified it with excellent preparations. Ad had handled all plans perfectly. There were 5000 feet of line for fixing and four-dozen tube pickets of 661-T6 alloy built by Bernays, and efficient radios of his design. Twelve pack animals and three porters were needed to haul the baggage and us.

Jeff was eager. Even before the lunch burro arrived at the lake he and I were off to explore the rock ledges above. We found the route and fixed lines, then headed up the moraines and glacier to the site of Camp I. When we returned Base Camp was a small city of tents. After dark fires were lit in the surrounding hills and the porters told us it was the eve of San Juan, the 22nd of June. The fires were prayers, built as close to heaven as possible. Ours, at 14,400 feet, were closer than anybody’s.

The next day we hauled loads and the day after Don, Jeff, and I occupied Camp I. Bernays and Larry climbed a small peak they called "Piquito” to view the route and returned to Base Camp.

Don, Jeff, and I explored the route to Camp II’s site, up glaciers over easy terrain except for 400 feet of steep slopes which we protected with the four-foot pickets and fixed lines. Camp II would lie in a beautiful setting on a small glacier bench in view of all the technical difficulties to the west summit. The face "didn’t look too bad” and we were eager to get our teeth into it, but that was the highest Jeff was to go on the’ mountain. That night in Camp I his bad cold worsened. On the following day Don and I left him there and pushed the route further beyond Camp II, fixing lines on steep slopes, then returned to Camp I. Jeff was quite sick, and so the next day we all rested. Don, Larry, Ad, and Bernays all had bad colds. Jeff did not improve and two days later he gave in and Ad took him to Base. It was a great disappointment to Don and me, for Jeff had been the real fireball of the climb.

With Larry, who had come up on the rest day, and the porters, Glicerio, Emilio and Victorino, Don and I climbed to Camp II. The porters did an admirable job of crossing the steep slopes with their heavy loads. They did not like it, but handled it cheerfully. We were already friends with these congenial men and were glad they made the later two climbs with us. Glicerio turned out to be quite an able climber.

Don, Larry and I spent the next two days getting to the dreaded schrund and over it to the platform just below the west summit. Climbing was mostly on steep snow and ice slopes in which we installed 1500 feet of fixed lines. The schrund is a crevasse that cuts the glaciated northwest face of Cashan in two, making a gap 100-feet-wide on a slope that must average 45°. This great gash was considerably widened sometime between 1965 when Ad Carter photographed the peak, and 1967. It fell apart in such a way that the upper edge is directly above the lower, and is hanging with giant icicles that threaten to impale passing climbers.

Climbing the schrund wall was unthinkable; so was skirting the schrund on either side. The only route was the point in mid-face where the bottom and top edges of the schrund were joined by an ice chute. Don led this extremely steep and exposed ice pitch a whole rope-length with almost no protection. It was the key to the mountain.

Putting the route in between Camp II and the west summit—and all climbing we did in the Cordillera Blanca—was facilitated by remarkable

snow conditions. The cool air with the high solar radiation and absence of fresh snowfall resulted in conditions like spring neve in the Cascades on cold mornings, although somewhat more lacy, often in a penitente form: a hard snow that easily held the climber. This was only on north, or sun-facing slopes. On the south, shaded slopes lay a strange type of snow that reminded me of hoar crystals I had seen in cold crevasses, except that it seemed to pile up to a considerable depth. Climbing in it was similar, I should imagine, to wading through a hip-deep bowl of cornflakes.

Now, with fixed rope set on all difficult pitches to just below the west summit, we descended that second evening enthusiastic for our prospects on the two summits. But in radioing Base Camp we broke into a conversation between Ad and Dave Bernays in Camp I. Dave hoped things could wait until his bad health improved and more supplies could be moved up. This alarmed the three of us at Camp II. We were progressing fast and the psychology of forward motion was working on us: we had to keep moving. If we should dally, our health or luck or good weather might run out on us. We radioed in, protesting any delays; fortunately we finally succeeded in reaching a compromise: Bernays would join us at Camp II the next day and bring porters with supplies. We three rested; in fact when they arrived in the early afternoon they found us still in our bags. The next morning Dave felt well enough to join us and we trudged with full loads up the beaten path and along fixed lines. Below the "Step” or ice chute Dave and Larry heroically agreed to portage all loads up this final pitch and set up Camp III, allowing Don and me to go above it with only pickets and fixed line to push the route ahead.

On the Camp III platform we paused to study the 350-foot triangle of ice to the west peak. It was flat and steep; there was not much choice, just climb straight up. The first lead, mine, was steep, in soft snow. Don then moved up in a slight avalanche trough, getting only small steps in the hard snow, and climbing on the front crampon points. He belayed and I climbed past him and out of the trough. Right on the face now, and the peak narrowed and became steeper. The snow surface allowed my toes a small hold with a couple of kicks but my axe found that at depth the snow was rotten and soft. I had some thoughts about avalanches, the whole outer surface slabbing off. I unwisely used my last two pickets near the start and then had no protection. I was free of the rope in this sense, and free too of the surrounding lowly concerns; except for the triangle of ice above there was only blue sky surrounding me. I was terrified to look down. I couldn’t think of climbing down; I was alone in the universe, the only thing was to climb up. It was exhilarating.

At the very end of the rope I found the west summit. I scooted up and lay on it—just big enough. I was quiet; it was a glorious moment. Then the bray of a burro, a strange raspy sound from far below tied me to the earthly world again, I remembered my duties and sat up to belay Don, who, on his steep belay was wondering what the hell I was doing. He was soon up with me and then congratulations were shouted up from Dave and Larry below. Don studied the route to the higher summit while I played out the fixed line. A moment to admire the great surrounding peaks under the alpine glow and then we rappelled, right into camp.

The next morning was bitterly cold and we reached the top of the fixed lines at the west summit thoroughly chilled, as the sun arose to warm us a little. Don and I now had less interest in this work; we felt we had climbed the mountain, and getting to the higher summit was a necessary but secondary achievement. Dave shouted up that he did not feel well enough to climb, leaving the three of us together again on a single rope. Don led out on a knife edge composed of the hard penitente snow under the left foot and the soft cornflakes under the right. He stopped at the end of the rope in a precarious place to belay. I moved up to him, then Larry came ahead, and because of the tangle of rope and the delicateness of our situation, he moved ahead. Larry had not led yet on the climb and Don and I had little idea of how well he could climb, but he went on with a gracefulness and assurance that both of us lacked that day. He carefully lowered himself off the ridge crest onto the steep slopes and led crabwise, cutting deep hand-and-footholds, across a vertical wall of snow to a rock outcrop. I climbed to him then down on rock to a ledge where I belayed both of them to me. Don and I were very cold. I had naively left our down jackets on the west summit, thinking things would warm up as the day progressed. But, after the burst of morning sun, it became windy and cloudy, on the verge of storm, perhaps the coldest day of the year. We took turns wearing Larry’s jacket. We rappelled down rock slabs and worked our way back to the ridge, where a succession of nightmarish leads took us teetering along the ridge to the summit, the snow under our right boots falling almost straight down into the Quebrada Cashan and the snow from our left falling into the Rajucolta. One spectacular lead of Don’s went 50 feet up a 70° riser of a step in the ridge. I led once, along the crest and then up a twelve-foot wall knocking three or four feet of lacy crystals off the ridge to the depth where there was enough solid snow to hold a foot. I expected to wash away into that dreaded exposure at any time. Our work was very slow and it was midafternoon when we reached the ridge high point, the summit. It too was narrow enough that we had to take turns, and the cold permitted only the briefest flag-flying and photo-taking; we had little interest in the view. We had passed the test of nerves and cold required of this summit and our main interest was getting off before dark.

*  *

Much later, well into night, we were outside the tent shivering and swearing at our frozen crampon straps, trying to get them loose with the primus stove. Suddenly out of an excess of joy Don thumped me on the back and we laughed. That was it: the joy was ours. The others shared all the victory over the mountain, all the satisfaction of the expedition with their planning, packing and support, but the climbing of the mountain, the pure joy of it, was Don’s, Larry’s and mine.

Carter tells of three more climbs:

From Cashan we looked across the mouth of the Quebrada Rajucolta to the twin-peaked bastion above its entrance on the north. Half of the natives called it by the name it bears on the map, Huamashraju, but we preferred the name the other half gave to it, Yanahuacra ("the black cow’s horns”), for so it looked. Two rocky horns rose black above snowy slopes. The higher peak (17,825 feet) had been climbed some four times before; the steeper but slightly lower one was virgin.

It was an easy day down into Rajucolta and up the grassy slopes on the far side through flocks of sheep. Rocky slabs prevented the pack animals from climbing the last few hundred feet and we had to back-pack the loads to our lake campsite on Huarmi Huacashcan Cocha ("lake of the weeping woman”). Sandra, who had stayed behind to fish, barely found us after sundown. At dawn on July 9 we left to head around the lake, up the scree and the southwest ridge of the higher horn. The sun was hot, the air was still and we all suffered from the comparatively low altitude. Eventually all eight were perched on the tiny summit, mostly standing since there was not room for us all to sit down. We were too tired and the hour too late to consider the lower horn.*

We now set our sights on a fairly low but completely unexplored peak, the highest point of the Yanamarey ("black pestle”) group. There have been ascents in the lower southern end of the group, but around our 17,263-foot peak, all was untouched. We skirted Cashan and Shacsha (Huantsán Chico) to camp in the Quebrada Rurec. The next day we

crossed to Arhueycancha and in steadily deteriorating weather and through hideous stretches of bog ascended the Quebrada Araranea. I felt apprehensive, fearing this peak I had never seen might prove a disappointment to the others. The rock had changed from granite to friable black slate. In the valley the vegetation was different and the metamorphic-cored peaks gave us the feeling we had entered a different mountain world. The weather on the morning of July 13 was hardly auspicious. Yet Emilio urged us to be off. "There’s much worse to come!” As I set out with Glicerio, I wondered if anyone else would follow; enthusiasm was at a low ebb.

We ascended a rock gully on much better footing than I had imagined. At the edge of the glacier, 1000 feet higher, I was delighted to see all five American men and both of the other porters behind me. In fact Emilio was, I know, the happiest man in Peru that day. No one ever enjoyed a climb more than he. The next 1200 feet were easy snow, some of it quite steep. That got us to the very sporty summit ridge, four rope- lengths of steep knife-edged ice. Though the weather was threatening and cold, this turned out to be one of those delightful climbs, just hard enough to make it fun.

Time was up for most of us. We plowed back to civilization through a foot of slush that had fallen in the night. But Dave Bernays had not had enough. With Glicerio, Dave left Querococha and ascended the Quebrada Yanamarey to attack the southern face of unclimbed Pucaraju ("red snow peak”; 17,540 feet). In unsettled weather the pair packed a camp as high as they could under the south face. Dave describes the climb:

"Towards evening, clearing began and gave us our first good look at the final few thousand feet of Pucaraju. The choice was either a long couloir on the south face or the less attractive southeast ridge. By dawn of July 23 we had reached the bottom of the couloir. The strata were tipped to favor us as we had expected and the climbing went easily. From the valley it appears that Pucaraju had a broad, flat summit, but it actually has two summits connected by a short knife-edged ridge of snow and rock. The couloir ends in the saddle, which we reached at 9:15. Not sure which summit was higher, we decided to climb them both. We set out for the western summit, alternating leads. At exactly ten A.M. Glicerio reached the top and his triumphant shout confirmed that it was the higher. I quickly joined him to enjoy the superb view afforded by the peak’s isolated location. Next we tackled the other summit, again alternating leads. I had the good fortune to be the first on top this time.”

Summary of Statistics.

Area: Cordillera Blanca, Peru

Ascents: Cashan Oeste, 18,705 feet, first ascent, July 4, 1967 (Anderson, L. Carter, J. Miller).

Huamashraju, 17,825 feet, fifth ascent, July 9, 1967 (Anderson, Bernays, A. and L. Carter, Duenwald, J. and S. Miller, Henestroza).

Yanamarey, 17,263 feet, first ascent, July 13, 1967 (Anderson, Bernays, A. and L. Carter, Duenwald, J. Miller, E. and V. Angeles, Henestroza).

Pucaraju, 17,540 feet, first ascent, July, 23, 1967 (Bernays, Henestroza).

Personnel: H. Adams Carter, leader; Donald W. Anderson, David J. Bernays, Lawrence A. Carter, Jeffrey C. Duenwald, Jack Miller and his wife Sandra, Americans; Domingos Giobbi (for the first week), Brazilian; Emilio Angeles, Victorino Angeles, Mauricio Eban, Glicerio Henestroza, Peruvians.

* The author made careful inquiries about names in the region. The accuracy of the names found on the map published by the German and Austrian Alpine Clubs under Dr. Hans Kinzls direction is astounding. However, all but one of about twenty local shepherds questioned called the peak "Shacsha”, which means in Quechua a type of male dancer who wears bangles on his arms and legs. (The one who had heard of the name "Huantsan Chico had until recently lived in Recuay, where the name is doubtless known from the map rather than from local tradition.) Since this peak has only a tenuous connection with Huantsan over a large number of intervening ridges and summits and is over six miles distant, we very much prefer its "correct” name, Shacsha.

*According to César Morales Arnao, it could either mean cactus thorn or split open. See A.A.J., 1966, 15:1, p. 67.

*This was climbed several weeks later by Don Liska’s parry. See Climbs and Expeditions section of this Journal.

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