A Yob’s-Eye View of the Quimsa Cruz
Roger Whewell, Rucksack Club
I AM A YOB.1 Thus the height of aesthetic achievement is to drive to the foot of the cliff and overcome the crux by trampolining off the seat of one’s motorcycle. In fact with careful planning and a quick eye for National Park wardens, the British hard man needs never touch terra firma between his bedroom floor and the foot of the route, assuming that his hangover is sufficiently in check to keep him from tangling with those dashing cavaliers of the modern highways, the Sunday motorist. Even the Alps hold no terrors for this breed. Guide book—télépherique timetable coordination will cut suffering to a minimum. Any route which is way out of télépherique range is best started just as bad weather rolls up the valleys. The succeeding "epic” will explain away the next week of perfect conditions, and tiredness resulting from this gives an excuse for a strict carbohydrate diet straight from a bottle.
One must however beware of building up too much of a reputation, the danger being that someday you will be conned into going on a real expedition to tackle a virgin mountain. The yob’s idea of knocking off a virgin does not entail suffering, and the ensuing traumatic shock is enough to drive him back to the bar parlour never more to emerge.
Imagine then my delight in finding a virgin peak where it was not only possible to drive to a base camp but to actually don crampons in the relative comfort of a Land Rover and from there to step directly onto firm Andean snow. Before the hoards crawl out of their holes, blink in the unaccustomed daylight and start scraping rust from their equipment let me say that only a few peaks in this region can be climbed in this way and that, naturally, I have climbed them.
The area in question lies at the southern-most end of the Cordillera Real in Bolivia, south of Illimani—the huge mass which overlooks La Paz— and across the great trench cut by the Río La Paz as it makes its crazy way to the Atlantic Ocean.
To reach the Cordillera Quimsa Cruz (Tres Cruces in Spanish, the former being the Aymara name for the mountains) you drive south across the altiplano on the Oruro road—5.9 for denture wearers—pausing to capture romantic views of scraggy llamas against the backdrop of Sajama, the volcano which is the highest peak in Bolivia, until in the fifth grubby village you turn left onto an even worse road that leads to Caxata. Here beware of two things: locals who point through arcs of 180° no matter what landmark or piece of information you require, and the coffee. After eighteen months in South America my intestinal tract has taken on the physical qualities of stainless steel, but the above mentioned liquid is really something again. It effectively ruined the Easter reconnaissance that Stan Shepard and I made of the Quimsa Cruz when we spent three days hopping from boulder to boulder, drooling over granite walls, only to have enthusiasm drained by violent attacks of the galloping trots.
The Quimsa Cruz is divided geologically into two. The mountains in the northern area are composed of granodiorite, somewhat reminiscent of the Chamonix Aiguilles, and relatively unexplored. The highest are around the 5400-meter (17,717-foot) mark and approaches are relatively simple. Glaciers are never a serious problem, although snow conditions on the mountains vary considerably. Basically though, the northern group presents rock and ice problems.
The peaks in the southern area are a metamorphosed series, higher (up to 19,000 feet), snowier and much better known and climbed in.2 This year (1968) and last year the southern Quimsa Cruz was visited by Japanese Expeditions, and this year they climbed at least thirteen new peaks.3 When Shepard and I looked at the northern end at Easter we were probably the first climbers with serious intentions to do so. Bad weather, a lack of toilet tissue, and a burnt out generator finally drove us back to La Paz.
A few weeks later Shepard returned on his motorcycle and soloed one of the more accessible peaks. The first 99% had been ear-deep slush topped by a tottery pinnacle upon which he came face to face with his maker, left an all-American piton in the top, lost 30 feet of someone else’s rope abseiling off, and arrived back in the big city a very much wiser man who has not been seen on the mountains since.
In June after sufferings and successes in Peru (see Climbs and Expeditions) my wife and I headed for the Quimsa Cruz. Viloco, some three and a half hours of driving from Caxata, is a good base for the northern group. Viloco is the biggest mine in the area run by Comibol, the nationalized mining corporation of Bolivia, and the manager is sympathetic towards visitors. There is a weekly market for fresh food, meat, eggs and vegetables, and by a long-winded bureaucratic process it is also possible to buy gasoline. For the latter it is better to drive a further four miles down the road to a smaller mine of Grace and Co., where gas can be bought without signing your life away.
Our main objective was a peak north of Viloco which appears to be the highest in the area. We hired a young, out-of-work miner as a camp guard, and used as a base a site underneath the southwest face of the mountain. While this is the most impressive face, it holds a lot of powder snow. A short, steep climb leads into an upper cirque under the southeast face from where we could see the northerly ice slope. Notable in this high valley is a shark’s fin affair, and as we rounded off the day by climbing a couple of easy peaks at the head of the valley, we were able to see how narrow it really is We put it on the list and went home for tea.
From then on bad weather set in with high winds and a lot of snow. In true yob style we celebrated the generally bad quality of Quimsa Cruz weather by lying in bed for three days while the wind tore at the tent and raised plumes of powder snow from the southwest face above us. All good things come to an end however, and at midday four days later we climbed up to the high valley again with a tent and gear to spend a few days up top.
The next morning was perfect with, for once, no wind. Very quickly we reached the start of the climbing which proved to be pleasant 50° to 55° snow until we reached the north ridge proper. Here life became a little complicated as the good snow gave way to powder covering rock, giving a couple of rope-lengths of quite hard climbing including a tension traverse over verglased slabs. Then onto a steep granite ridge, a final snow slope and the summits. Although from below, the top seems sharp and well defined, it turned out to be four big boulders sticking precariously out of a knife-edge ridge of snow. These gave interesting boulder problems and eventually we awarded the prize to boulder number three, which was higher by a layer of quartz crystals. We quickly weighed up the peaks around, particularly two ferocious-looking things a little further to the east. By now a nasty wind was coming up and cloud was starting to spill over from the jungle. We abseiled rapidly over the rock wall, glissaded down the now slightly slushy snow and got into the tent as snow began to fall. We named the peak "Pusi Puntas” (Aymara for "four tops.”)
The next morning a white cold world showed itself. The steep face of the "shark’s fin” was plastered, and mist swirled around our tent. We packed up the high camp, picked up the rest of the gear from below, drove north to the end of the range losing 8000 feet in doing so and festered for two days in the tropical sun.
Once the cloud moved off the peaks the Land Rover was coaxed into life and we roared back to Viloco. From the mine a road climbs up to the main ridge, crosses this at 16,400 feet and continues at the same height on the other side. After about a mile the road begins to drop just as steeply down towards a smaller mine. Here we put up the tent and watched a tremendous sunset behind Illimani. The next day was a yob’s delight. A leisurely breakfast—in bed, naturally—crampons donned in the car, a short stagger of five yards and we were off up beautiful firm snow. Some wild traverses over extremely slender granite ridges gave us three peaks in the day, and we finished by abseiling back into the car. Illimani looked as if it had a hangover and a nasty wind whipped the tent as we rightly concluded that another spell of bad weather was on its way. Driving back to Viloco the next morning was perhaps the most dangerous part of the whole trip, with axle-deep snow throwing the car uncomfortably close to the edge.
In Viloco it was pouring down. Mud was ankle deep; the place looked like something from a World War I picture. I had a heavy date with Huayna Potosi, but Elspeth wanted to be eaten by mosquitos, and we had successfully removed the rust from some of our gear. Without too many regrets we swapped double boots for sandals, changed ice axes for machetes and went driving in the jungle.
For a small party wanting to climb new peaks with suffering and load- carrying cut to a minimum there is plenty of stuff left. And remember, the quality of the weather is always relative to one’s state of mind.
Area: Cordillera Quimsa Cruz.
Ascents: P c. 5200 meters, 17,061 feet, early June, 1968 (Stanley Shepard).
Pico de Vientos, 17,000 feet, June 13, 1968 (Elspeth and Roger Whewell).
Pusi Puntas, 17,700 feet, June 14, 1968 (both Whewells).
Cumbre, 17,000 feet, June 19, 1968 (both Whewells).
Note: These peaks lie southeast of Yunque. Pusi Puntas lies on the western end of the ridge which runs roughly parallel to the stream which descends past the mine at Limocuya. Cumbre lies at the other end of this ridge, just above the road which climbs to the pass and beyond to a mine of Grace & Co., southeast of the group. Pico de Vientos lies east of Pusi Puntas.
1. Generic term for debauched, unshaven, semi-alcoholic rock gymnasts who infest holes in the ground, and occasionally look out of the pub window in the hope that the sun is no longer shining.
2. The A.A.J., 1965, mentions the "first 'official’ reconnaissance” on page 456 but earlier climbs are detailed in the A.A.J., 1962, on page 191.
3. This information does not agree with information received from the Japanese See Climbs and Expeditions. It is hoped to have a summary of climbing in the Quimsa Cruz in the A.A.J.. 1970, which should clear up its climbing history.—Editor.