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Aquilpo and Atlante, Cordillera Blanca

Aquilpo and Atlante, Cordillera Blanca

Gary Ziegler, unaffiliated

climbing in the Andes defies all attempts at organization and planning. Despite knowing this, months in advance we prepared plans and complex time-tables of where and when we would be on various dates. Finally June 20 found five of us, Anne Ketchin, three friends from New Mexico, Ron and Karen Bierstedt and Dan Petersen, and me, safely in Huaraz, only a week behind schedule. Our transportation, a used pickup truck purchased in Lima, had performed admirably, and the weather was excellent. We were eager to reach Vicos and begin our warm-up climb of Copa, an easy and often climbed 6000-meter peak in the central Cordillera Blanca.

Besieged upon arrival in the plaza of Huaraz by the usual mob of would-be porters, I chose one who waved a letter of recommendation from a Colorado expedition and was willing to work for wages we could afford to pay. We paid him the agreed-upon advance of 500 soles, about $11, and set about buying the necessary food to supplement our brought-from-home freeze-drys. Departure morning arrived, but not our porter. A report to the local Guardia Civil, two days and a new porter—no pay in advance—placed us on the road to our first planned base camp.

At Vicos, a "democratized” Indian community and the handiwork of a decade of Cornell anthropologists, we found the president of the comunidad and intrusted him with our truck. Late the following evening we were awakened by Indians, who spoke rapid Quechua and handed us a note in Spanish. Roughly translated, it read, "Mr. Climber, come quickly! Your truck fell off a bridge, three persons injured.” In the morning we were solemnly led to the remains of our truck. At the bottom of a canyon two miles below Vicos it lay smashed beyond recognition. The president’s 24-year-old son, an acculturated school teacher on visit from the "city,” managed to start the truck and with two friends set out for a test run. Having never driven before, it is understandable why he failed to make the first turn below Vicos. Caught between sympathy for the Indian family and the need to recover damages, we spent a miserable week arguing, threatening, compromising and filing "official” reports with the Guardia Civil. Finally we were able to turn our attention to that now distant objective, climbing.

A long day’s walk put us far up in the Quebrada Honda and close to our new goal, the north face of Tocllaraju. Upon the arrival of the porter and pack animals, we were greeted with, "Meester Jefe, un caballo no está.” This meant that one of the horses had disappeared and with him the valuable equipment he carried: Anne’s sleeping bag, my new four-man tent, crampons and half our fixed ropes. A frantic search through the night and on into the next day uncovered only the cargo-less horse. It was with some degree of anger that I wrote in my journal that day, "Vicos strikes again.”

The following days were better. We were well established in an abandoned mine, Mina Esparta, at 15,500 feet and managed to compensate for the missing equipment. One can sleep adequately, but not comfortably, in two down jackets. And our porter’s ancient iron crampons could be made to fit my boots.

On the morning we actually began climbing on Tocllaraju the weather struck with vengeance. Westerly-moving low clouds obscured the peaks, bringing high winds and blowing snow. Several abortive attempts, nagging illness and a miserable night out at 18,000 feet convinced us to return to Huaraz to await better weather. Ron Bierstedt hung on a little longer and on July 16 with porter Francisco González made the fourth ascent of Aquilpo Sur ( 18,111 feet). The days of dubious weather dragged on and eventually our friends had to return home.

After unproductive attempts to entice discontented climbers from other groups to join us, Anne and I hired Honorato Calduaflores, a highly recommended porter from Huaraz, and departed, resupplied, for the Quebrada Honda. Our objective was Atlante, an unclimbed ice peak across the quebrada from Tocllaraju to the northwest. Considering the strength of our small group, the 17,930-foot peak appeared formidable. I knew Anne to be strong and technically competent. Honorato would have the opportunity to prove himself on Aquilpo Sur, an easier climb we planned to do first. Arriving at our old base camp, Mina Esparta, we recovered cached equipment and established comfortable quarters to await a break in the continuing bad weather. The break arrived and we repeated Ron’s climb of the south peak of Aquilpo in an easy day, reaching the summit at eleven A.M. on Peruvian Independence Day, July 28. Honorato’s attitude and good intent were unquestionable, but his knowledge and experience were somewhat overrated. With regard for his safety and ours, we decided that he might be of more use at Base Camp in the future. That evening we learned that Aquilpo was his first summit, and so we had a grand excuse to break out our carefully hoarded bottle of Pisco, a Peruvian grape brandy which mixes well with hot lemonade.

More clouds, wind and snow hindered the move from Mina Esparta to a new base camp across the Honda, but sore backs, heavy loads and enthusiasm accomplished the jog in a minimum of time. Base Camp II was located at 16,000 feet in a wind-swept basin west of the high point of the trail that winds north out of the Honda above Rinconada. Reconnaissance showed the southeast ridge as the most promising route on Atlante. A direct approach could be made from Base Camp over an easy icefield, and the ridge appeared reasonable except for some ominous cornices and several steep sections. A long corniced ridge leading to the summit lay concealed behind a lesser top on which the southeast ridge culminated.

August brought even worse weather, commencing with continuous wet, heavy snowfalls, which obscured the route and made treacherous going over the easy rock approach. During relatively clear breaks in the weather, we climbed much of the ridge, which was more demanding than it appeared, and placed fixed lines on the steeper pitches. After several days of snow and wind we had to make the "all-or-nothing” attack on the summit since in two days our supplies and energy would be exhausted. Despite wind and clouds, we made good time up the ridge. Mechanical ascenders worked well on the fixed lines of quarter-inch polyethelene. The corniced section proved dangerous but not difficult. Confronted with a steep rock buttress below the summit, we were forced up a nearly vertical snow column. This 150-foot-high column confirmed our worst expectations when halfway up, it turned to soft snow. Then, 140-feet up, I found myself face to face with the underside of a three-foot cornice overhang. A brief break in the clouds revealed Anne belaying from the lip of a thin cornice. Without protection, I chopped up through the luckily soft overhang, where I was higher but no more secure. With the last inches of rope I found hard ice and placed a screw, establishing a belay; Anne was soon beside me. The walk to the summit was uneventful.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Quebrada Honda, Cordillera Blanca, Peru.

Ascents: Aquilpo Sur, 18,111 feet, fourth and fifth ascents, July 16, 1968 (Bierstedt, Francisco González); July 28, 1968 (Ketchin, Ziegler, Honorato Calduaflores).

Atlante, 17,930 feet, first ascent, August 3, 1968 (Ketchin, Ziegler).

Personnel: Ronald and Karen Bierstedt, Anne Ketchin, Daniel Petersen, Gary Ziegler.