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Huascarán's East Face—Camino del Enfermo

Huascarán’s East Face — Camino del Enfermo

GEOFF WAYATT, New Zealand Alpine Club

THE wind blew and shook the Camp IV tents around two A.M. At three A.M. Paul yelled to awaken me and I started brewing hot cocoa and the prior evening’s left-overs of chicken soup, tuna and noodles. Our gear was a struggle: inner boots, gaiters and outer boots; all within our sleeping bags. There was little light when we left the camp, but around five o’clock, as we gained the first slopes and crevasses, a slim dawn light afforded us a safe access to the face.

Another 500 feet and we gained a large avalanche cone and what better place to stop and remove duvets and visit nature. Four bare bums on a chilly morning! Around a sérac — a thin chute of snow looked promising but too time consuming. Height and time were our rivals. The cramponing was superb and we moved together on the pleasantly hard 55° to 60° slopes. The sun hit us at the top of a small rock gully and we shed another layer. Three hundred feet higher Bob Schneider and I reached the “Claw” and put on sun glasses. Bob Ryan and Paul Coradine quickly joined us. We climbed together up the side of a steep recess below overhanging ice cliffs and towering séracs. I heard Schneider let out an “Unnh” as his technique failed him for a second. It was only his fifth serious ice climb and I was glad of his scare, for he’d climb tighter for the rest of the day. Overhanging rocks pushed us back to the main ridge via a powdery gully, where we stopped for our first snack break: caramels, Siblima chocolate and a sip from our water-bottles.

Although it was only 8:45 A.M., we were at an altitude of 19,000 feet and starting to tire. Our calf muscles ached; as snow conditions were deteriorating we moved singly. We carried four days’ food in our packs, plus duvets, sleeping bags, tent sacs and spirit stoves. The steepness never eased and our packs were heavy. I led a dangerously rotten snow pitch to the base of steep rock slabs. I gladly let Schneider, our ’Frisco rock gymnast, pass me, his crampons grating on the brown granite. With a spread-eagled bridge-like movement, he wiggled twenty feet to a short jam-crack, where he disappeared from view. A sling for protecton and a rotten snow chute led him to an isolated shelf of rock. My lead consisted of a hurried scramble up a crystalline cornice with ice axe flailing. Bob passed and tackled an ice overhang. “You fool Schneider”! He chopped two large steps beneath the lip and with two axes placed above, he heaved himself to the top. Higher up and alongside the “Sickle” we squeezed onto a small flat ledge under an overhang. It was tight for the four of us but we eased our weary legs and chatted happily. Paul treated us to some buttered milk biscuits. What a view! We sat like four pigeons, perched thousands of feet above the valley floor. Above, the face was fluted in a series of ridges and grooves. The grooves were hard ice. The southern sides of the ridges were sugary powder snow and the northern sides sun-wetted mush — all within twelve feet.

The afternoon mist whirled around us and at about five P.M. we searched for a bivouac spot. Under a huge overhanging bergschrund directly beneath the main summit buttress we found the perfect site. Like the inside of a hollowed canoe, the thirty-foot bench afforded us the maximum in 21,000-foot hospitality. The setting was serene, only the chuffing of our stoves breaking the stillness. Huge icicles hung from our cavern; the surrounding world was a vertical one, the closest flat ground being 1000 feet above or 4000 feet below us. We drifted into sleep between courses of cocoa, tuna and noodles. At midnight I was awakened by Paul’s heavy breathing and coughing, so decided to brew up again. There were flashes of lightning over the Amazon basin and the air was crisp and clear. A vitamin-C drink and a sleeping tablet pulled me into “happy land”.

In the morning Paul was in rough shape; he was unable to eat or drink but complained little. It appears now that he was in the throes of hepatitis, which four of our party later contracted. We shared out the equipment between the remaining three. The morning sunlight was superb and we were surely the first in Peru to receive it. Two paces from my sleeping position and WOW! A sheer 4,000 feet down to our tiny red tent at the base of the face. “Will you lead off, or shall I?” Schneider said. We had to climb sixty feet down to the main flutings of the “Sickle”. He added that it was only his fifth ice climb and how could anybody force a 23-year old Californian rock-climber to lead the first pitch of the day on 70° ice at 21,000 feet. He bluffed me, the cheeky bugger, and quickly dived over the edge with the protection of a top-rope. I followed — YEA! It was nervy; the sudden shock of stepping from our sleeping cave onto the face was like being swung from a crane off a multi-story building. We climbed around the edge of the overhang and up a groove close under the rock buttress to avoid the occasional dive-bombing rocks. Schneider had an attack of the “Trots”. Only fifty feet below him on the 65° slope, I had full sympathy for his predicament. He said he had no push left and the antibiotics weren’t helping.

Across the “Sickle" the climbing was superb, medium-hard ice, honeycombed to form neat steps. Bob anchored me, and I traversed two ice bands at the end of the “Sickle” and bridged a steep rock-ice section. As the angle increased to vertical, I slipped a sling over a protruding rock spike. The gully above was water-ice via which I hoped to gain a spur of powder snow. I mantled onto the spike and balanced one pivoting crampon while the other scratched at the ice. I chopped two frail steps to the left and placed a screw to the hilt. After clawing across the gully I lunged bodily into the powdery spur: bottomless, sugary powder and bloody steep. I’d reach as high as possible, sink my axe to shoulder height and then with my feet, pack out pigeon-hole steps. To compact the sugar was nearly impossible and everything continually collapsed beneath me. In retrospect, it was probably the classic pitch of my Andean climbing — a combination of all forms, beyond the realm of defined techniques, where the difficulties are measured by the amount of adrenalin, nerve control and endurance needed for survival. Schneider passed me and worked above while Bob Ryan and I, belayed to a screw, chatted about our prospects. Paul huddled motionless over his ice axe; he was so ill he could barely follow Bob, who doggedly protected and encouraged him upwards. Paul had been pushing for twenty-four hours on will-power alone and the altitude was beginning to tell.

Above, the wall closed in on us and the alternatives appeared limited. We estimated only 300 feet to the summit ridge. At normal altitudes not far — but at over 21,000 feet all upward movements required a determined physical effort. Schneider led thirty feet to some rocks, placed a runner and traversed right across an ice gully chopping three widely spaced steps with deft efficiency. Panting next to him, we considered our next lead. An ice cliff barred the way. Three alternatives — to the right, a vertical powder ridge; in the centre, a ten-foot vertical ice wall; and to the left, fifteen feet of rock with a protruding ice overhang above. I chose the exposed powder ridge on the right and thrashed and strove with no apparent upwards movement. From the predicament of a slowly collapsing square foot of compacted powder, the two other alternatives looked far more appealing and I hurriedly retreated. A front-point traverse led me to the rock wall and ice lip. I wind-milled up between the rock and a snow bulge keeping the rate of footwork faster than the collapsing powder. With my N.W. hammer I smashed at the lip above and after leaving my sack in the cave behind, I boomeranged my upper body past the bulge and placed a screw. The ice groaned hesitantly as the screw bit home and I tied it off as the thread disappeared. Using two steps for aid, I clawed quickly up an ice groove for twenty feet and belayed. Bob shuttled my pack up and then climbed up with his own. He was puffed, so I took the next pitch to a snow arrowhead on the edge of the buttress. Only 150 feet to go. It was all rock and looked steep. “Schneider, you weren’t brought here for your good looks,” I said, passing him extra slings and carabiners. He traversed left, chopping away enough of a snow bulge to scramble frantically on all fours across a sloping ledge. He placed a high runner and jammed and bridged some fifteen feet, before protecting a second traverse with another sling. Bob Ryan and I sat on the ridge munching caramels and chocolates and voicing encouragement to Schneider’s cat-like antics and efficient progress. A few moments later I shuffled from my belay and made a hurried struggle up the pitch to Bob’s belay. The last ten feet were a typical Schneider maneuver — bloody difficult! I’m sure he covered the last three handholds with his feet, for I floundered onto the ledge and a mass of rope, arms, legs and axes.

Bob suggested we were on the last pitch. He also suggested I lead it. He said his belay was poor and that he was cold! I shuddered at the weight of words being placed on my shoulders. I climbed two short rotten rock walls, loosing enough rocks to keep the others tucked well under their hard hats. I kicked and bridged my way up a thirty-foot snow chute and the wall was ours. The pace exhausted me, I ripped the ever-burdening sack from my back and wrenched out my duvet. The wind-chill factor was about minus forty. I hauled in the rope for Bob’s ascent, it came taut and I waited for indication of his movement. NOTHING! After a time I gave another pull and at last the rope came slack. Soon a head appeared in the chute and we dived into a depression on the western side of the ridge to await the other pair.

We now picked out Jim, Bruce and Murray’s tracks coming from the southeast ridge and past us to the summit. They had done well not only to make the first ascent of the ridge but traverse the necessary two miles to the main summit. Paul dived into the depression, having found the energy to lead the last crucial pitch of the wall. With Bob up, we followed our other mates’ tracks around the steep eastern sides of three small peaks and rested in a sheltered wind scoop. Paul collapsed exhausted about twenty feet away from the shelter, unable to manage the extra few feet without resting. Unknown to us it was hepatitis that was sapping his energy. We all managed to crawl over a subsidiary summit and rested in view of the main summit, some 250 feet above and 300 yards away. The gale-force winds buffeted our progress and penetrated our duvets, but after consuming masses of caramels and chocolates we plodded to the final summit — a large unimpressive snow dome.

We staggered down the normal route towards the Garganta. The other three’s tracks headed down towards the northeast (Spanish) ridge, intent on a mammoth traverse of the Huascarán skyline. We were exhausted but elated in the realization that all seven of us had made the 22,202-foot summit and in doing so, completed a unique criss-cross traverse, involving two first ascents on the largest and highest face in Peru — the east face of Huascarán.

An additional note: Our ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States) expedition was an informal group of friends doing some good climbs with the least amount of “production” to the maximum of enjoyment. We arrived in Lima on May 26. Two days were spent purchasing local foods on which we subsisted for two months. We travelled via Huaraz and Carhuaz to the village of Shilla, from where we hiked with burros for a day up the Ulta valley to Base Camp beneath the east face of Huascarán. The expedition made two acclimatization ascents: Contrahierbas (19,803 feet), where we ascended directly onto the middle of its south ridge, dropped 500 feet to its main eastern glacier and ascended the true left side to the summit, and Ulta (19,275 feet), where we traversed a series of small peaks on its eastern flank to gain the peak proper, which we ascended on its southern snow face. The two new routes on Huascarán followed: a five-day bivouac ascent of the virgin southeast ridge, a summit traverse, and descent of the northeast (Spanish) ridge; and the ascent of the east face, the hardest and most direct route to Peru’s highest peak, Huascarán Sur (22,202 feet). An abortive attempt on the east face of Chopicalqui was abandoned because of heavy snowfall and avalanche hazard.

Summary of Statistics:

AREA: Cordillera Blanca, Peru.

ASCENTS: Contrahierbas, 19,803 feet, fourth ascent, June 8 to 10, 1971 (Schneider and Wayatt).

Ulta, 19,275 feet, second ascent, June 13 to 15, 1971 (Coradine, Schneider, Strang, Wayatt).

Huascarán, 22,202 feet, first ascent of southeast ridge, traverse of summit skyline, first descent of northeast ridge, June 17 to 21, 1971 (Jenkinson, Jones, Strang).

Huascarán, 22,202 feet, first ascent of east face, June 21 to 24, 1971 (Coradine, Ryan, Schneider, Wayatt).

PERSONNEL: Geoff Wayatt, Robert Ryan, Australians; Paul Coradine, James Strang, Murray Jones, Bruce Jenkinson, New Zealanders: Robert Schneider, American.