Jirishanca's West Face

Publication Year: 1970.

Jirishanca’s West Face

RlCCARDO CASSIN, Lecco Section, Club Alpino Italiano

THANKS TO the proposal of Dr. Sandro Liati, who with Gigi Alippi wanted to make an overseas expedition, my years-long dream of climbing in the Andes came true. Our friend, Giuseppe Dionisi, informed us that there no longer existed in the Peruvian Andes important unclimbed mountains. In order to obtain a result which was consistent with the prestige of mountaineering of the city of Lecco, we must seek unscaled slopes of already climbed peaks. We therefore decided on the northeast face of Yerupajá. However, before we left we discovered that it had been climbed by an American expedition. Therefore, only the east face seemed available for us.* Yerupajá (21,759 feet) is the highest in the Cordillera Huayhuash and the third highest in Peru.

With our objective chosen, we had to select the climbers. For this, we had recourse to the Gruppo Ragni. Unfortunately the Lecco Section of the Italian Alpine Club, under whose aegis the expedition had been organized, was absolutely unable to help financially. Notwithstanding these difficulties, we succeeded in forming a group of men who truly measured up to the task we had to do. It was composed of Gigi Alippi, Natale Airoldi, Casimiro Ferrari, Giuseppe Lafranconi, Dr. Sandro Liati, Annibale Zucchi, the undersigned and lastly Mimmo Lanzetta, who did not aspire to Andean heights but was nonetheless very helpful.

In Lima a shattering bit of news awaited us. Dr. César Morales Arnao, who was more than helpful to us in all phases of the expedition, informed us that an Austrian group had just climbed the east face of Yerupajá, our objective. (Actually the second ascent of the face. See footnote – Editor.) This was a bitter blow but we overcame our disappointment. A new objective materialized in the west face of Jirishanca (20,099 feet). Jirishanca is one of the most beautiful of the Peruvian Andes and ranks with Yerupajá in the Cordillera Huayhuash.

Even the name of the late Toni Egger, my dear friend and a great mountaineer, is connected to the history of Jirishanca, for in 1957, after days of harsh struggle and self-sacrifice, he reached the summit with Siegfried Jungmair by scaling the east face. Nobody had ever tried our objective, the west wall, and so the myth of invincibility grew. Seen from any angle, it is an alluring sight of exceptional beauty, an impressive slope of smooth, shining ice. To get to the base of the wall, we had to reach a glacier whose surface had not been touched by human feet; even in 1954 the expedition of Doctor Klier considered it inaccessible.

Our expedition left Lima for Chiquián after several days’ delay, caused in part by bureaucracy. Chiquián is a large town, 11,650 feet above sea level, on a great plateau. Most of the population farms, using primitive tools. They break up the dry earth with digging sticks. There we met our four porters, good strong boys who would help us with the heavy loads up to the base of the wall. We packed the 40 burros for the march to Base Camp (13,125 feet) still 80 miles and three days away. We established Base Camp close to two small trout-filled lakes. It was an idyllic spot, magnificent and well protected. The western slope of the Cordillera Huayhuash filled our eyes with its beauty, resplendent in the sunlight, impressive but grotesque. We breathed the rarefied air deeply. On our left was Rondoy with its massive hulk; then the twin peaks of Jirishanca, one big and one small, of grandiose boldness and potential ferocity; next El Toro, whose pink rock, when not covered by ice, reminded us of the Dolomites; and finally Yerupajá, forceful in its dominance. Each mountain had its own particular cast of features.

It was June 17. Though we had left Italy twelve days before, we had only managed to pitch Base Camp. Not to waste any more time, I set out the next morning with Alippi and our four porters towards our mountain. We climbed for four fatiguing hours on steep terrain until we found a good site for our supply dump and intermediate support camp.

During the next days we took turns packing supplies to the intermediate camp. On June 21 we set off to establish the assault camp. We were worried because we knew that in order to get to the final camp, we had to reach the Toro-Jirishanca col (17,400 feet), which until then was held to be insurmountable. Dr. César Morales Arnao had told us that in 1957 an airplane with 27 passengers had crashed near the col. After making four attempts, the rescue expedition had to give up, finding no way to reach the disaster area.

The extensive glacial surface was cut by criss-crossing crevasses, the like of which I had never seen even in the Karakoram or in Alaska. We were living in a spine-chilling fairy-tale in a realm of snow, full of deadly pitfalls. One thin snow bridge had been carelessly constructed by Fate. Almost as a joke, we looked right and left for a better way, but there was none. I advanced slowly, careful and light-footed; the bridge held. We all got across then and later, as we stocked the assault camp. We arrived at a good campsite above the col at 16,750 feet. The wall of Jirishanca was extremely difficult with a slope of 70° to 75°. This awe-inspiring sight was almost vertical in places, with huge overhanging séracs. We had chosen the toughest problem in the Huayhuash and now we had to climb this aesthetically beautiful wall. The route led under a huge overhang, where we had to chop steps and fix ropes. The quick gain of altitude had given us painful headaches.

For several days we toiled from the intermediate and from Base Camp to supply the assault camp. Aside from the weight on our shoulders, difficulties sprang from the brilliant sunlight at 16,000 feet.

On June 28, as the weather was still favorable, four of us moved toward the peak. Zucchi and Lafranconi were to scout ahead and fix ropes above the section reached by Ferrari and Alippi the day before. Airoldi and I were to take pictures and carry loads. But after getting to within a rope-length of the previous day’s high spot, Airoldi and I had to descend, peppered with ice which fell from the activity of the two above. It was after dark, at 6:30 p.m., when Lafranconi and Zucchi returned to camp. They had not reached the summit but had gotten within 150 feet.

On June 29, we were hit by an infernal storm, supernatural, horrible and evil. We lay like animals preyed upon by Mother Nature. And we had been told, “At this season, it’s always good weather in the Andes!” Though my companions felt secure as they lay together, I had the feeling the Devil was taking a hand in things. For four days we cowered in the tent.

On July 3, the weather got better, and Ferrari climbed the wall with Liati to check the half-destroyed fixed ropes. Towards evening they were surprised by a sudden atmospheric change and forced to bivouac on the wall. Those of us at the camp were alarmed. Though I tried not to dramatize things, I could not hide my worry. We spent a long, anxious, sleepless night. In the morning we spied the tent which had protected Ferrari and Liati at the foot of the wall and breathed a sigh of relief. The fixed ropes had proved themselves, always letting us back off, even in violent storms.

Since the weather had improved, Lafranconi and Zucchi moved off after the lead pair and reached them at an ice cave to which the others had climbed in the. meantime. The next day, July 5, Alippi, Airoldi and I left. Although overloaded, we caught up to our friends that same night and we all bivouacked together in the huge, unlikely, Dantesque cave, hung with ice stalactites of natural and artistic architecture. Unfortunately seven of us had to fit into two “Nepal” tents.

At dawn on the 6th, Ferrari and Lafranconi left, reclimbed the 350 feet already done the day before and prepared for the effort to ascend the last 35 feet which separated them from the summit. They had to surmount an ice mushroom on unstable, precarious ice, spongy and fluffy on the surface. The axe cracked everything, their feet gave way and it was hard to make the next move. The delicate icy skull-cap was the final defense of the virginity of the face of this 20,099-foot colossus. Suddenly Ferrari and Lafranconi disappeared from sight around the back side. These were moments of frantic agitation. Finally, with unbending will, Ferrari, belayed by Lafranconi and sprinkling the way with wood chips from his ice-axe shaft, managed to clamber onto the summit. This fragile skull-cap never solidifies because of the sun, wind and snow which beat upon it continuously. It was our one link to earth. Everyone mounted the summit, even though we feared it might not hold together under our weight.

Down at the cave we gave vent to our happiness. Once more a mountaineering victory provided me with a feeling of power, of security. My heart beat faster, as if it would explode. My euphoria drove me to giddiness. I felt happy, carefree and aware that I could not explain my sensation, because it was an inner joy, deep in my spirit. My gratitude to my friends was inexpressible. We grasped each others’ hands; a strong embrace said everything.

The day after, July 7, at dawn, we began the long, tedious descent. Lafranconi and I came last. Our job Was to retrieve the ropes and pitons, at least those we did not need to get down. At two P.M. we all reached the assault camp, where Lanzetta and the four porters were waiting. We toasted the conquest with the only bottle of “cardinale” wine, which Zucchi had brought all the way up. We continued the descent immediately and reached Base Camp well after dark. This great adventure had ended happily.

Summary of Statistics:

AREA: Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru.

NEW ROUTE: Jirishanca, 20,099 feet, west face, July 6 (whole party except for Lanzetta).

PERSONNEL: Riccardo Cassin, leader; Luigi Alippi, Natale Airoldi, Casimiro Ferrari, Giuseppe Lafranconi, Sandro Liati, Annibale Zucchi, Mimmo Lanzetta.

*These two faces are the same. See A.A.J., 1969, 16:2, pp 271-4. There has been some confusion about the orientation of this face, which led an Austrian expedition to think that they were making a new route a year later in 1969. Actually the Austrian expedition’s climb saved the Italians the disappointment of making a second ascent. – Editor.