High Peaks of the Parón—Perutah Expedition

Author: Leigh Ortenburger. Climb Year: 1971. Publication Year: 1972.

High Peaks of the Parón — Perutah Expedition


THE size. The enormous size. This was my impression of the Cordillera Blanca after seeing these magnificent peaks after an absence of seven years. The sheer magnitude of the mountains overwhelmed my memories. The reality was not on the same scale as the recollection. But it was good to be back.

In a matter of days we were at the end of the road in the Quebrada Parón: Jock Glidden, Burt Janis, George Lowe, Mike Lowe, Franz Mohling, Rick Reese and I. It was a strong expedition with original impetus from the state of Utah, hence our name Perutah, but later two more were gathered into the group, Franz from Colorado and me from California. We had selected the Parón canyon partially for its beauty, partially for its ease of access, but mainly for the number of first class peaks which surround it. The Parón offers seven of the 6000-meter peaks of the range — two Nevados de Caraz, Artesonraju, Chacraraju, and three of the Huandoys — and four 5800-meter peaks — the two Piscos, the spectacular Aguja Nevada, and the Pirámide de Garcilaso, second to none. The beautiful Laguna Parón, the reflecting pool for Pirámide, effectively blocks access to the upper canyon since from the side, cliffs descend directly into the lake. Apparently only four previous successful expeditions had penetrated into the upper canyon, although others had climbed the peaks accessible from the western end of the canyon.

The weather had not been auspicious. There was fresh snow about, an unusual condition for this time of year. Base Camp was set up at the east end of the lake at about 13,780 feet. With the plethora of high and difficult peaks it was not easy to find one suitable for the first acclimatizing climb. After a day of reconnaissance, Pisco Este was selected since it was relatively low and Mike Lowe had seen what appeared to be a location for a relatively high Camp I. As an additional incentive, almost any route from the Parón would be new.

Pisco Este (c. 19,000 feet). The approach from the lakeshore to the northeast side of the mountain was not difficult. We used the north rim of the moraine inclosing the remnant of the glacier descending from the northwest face of Chacraraju, and then out on the glacier itself. It is difficult to view these pitiful remains of once mighty rivers of ice without regret or even sorrow. How many other mountaineers pray for a return of the ice age? At about 17,500 feet our Camp I was situated beautifully, looking out to the imperious Chacraraju and the splendor of the flutes of the Pirómide. George Lowe, who was not well when we started, was now even worse and was unable to climb the next day, a victim of a serious diarrhea which was to keep him from the mountains for the next ten days.

Early in the morning we were off, three ropes of two. Mike and Burt Janis, our expedition doctor, elected to try a direct couloir to the summit (north) ridge, while the rest of us were content to try a mixed snow, ice and rock face we had viewed from Base Camp. Without any adventures we topped out on the ridge, which carried us to the summit mushroom cornice. We were soon on top of it, ill at ease, wondering whether the entire structure was going to collapse while we were there. No way of knowing, of course, but I remember wondering whether it was cowardly to be worried. On the way down the ridge we saw first Mike and then Burt climbing the last section of their steep couloir, the more difficult route of the two although both were apparently new. Our descent from the ridge, which followed our easier route up, was disorganized. On this, our first climb together, a variety of methods was suggested to speed the descent. Opinions, arguments actually, were put forward, but in the end nothing availed and we were slow, not reaching camp until after dark. But some understanding was gained and the next day on our return to Base Camp we were still speaking.

Nevado de Caraz de Parón (west peak, 19,767 feet): Nevado de Caraz de Santa Cruz (east peak, 19,751 feet). With George still ill and Mike not as vigorous as usual, Franz Mohling, Jock Glidden, and I were elected to establish Camp I for the Nevados de Caraz, our next objectives on the north side of the canyon, and then put in the route to Camp II near the saddle between the two peaks. At the extreme west end of glacial moraine below the peaks we found the old tent platforms left by Hermann Huber, Alfred Koch, and Helmut Schmidt in 1955 when they made the only previous ascent of the two peaks (June 14-16). The following day, while Mike and Burt came up to our Camp I, the three of us set out across the glacier where we found two of the last things we were looking for, hard work and danger. The work was caused by soft snow, while the danger came in the crossing of two separate slopes beneath active icefalls. These had great potential for tragedy, but luck was with us and the porters during all of our transits. The difficulty was not great and an excellent site for Camp II was found in a hollow just beneath the high saddle. The next day all five of us moved up to occupy Camp II at about 18,800 feet with a panoramic view of the range to the south.

The route to the summit of the west peak would have been straightforward if we had been able to see anything. During the last 500 feet we were in a genuine whiteout, able to see only the snow at our feet. Because of the visibility problem some unusual investigations were required to determine that we were in fact on the summit and that it was not another cornice. The facts were established by some horizontal traverses to peer around corners during the short break in the clouds. The view from the summit was only down, down the monstrous south face of the peak, all the way, all 6000 feet down to the Laguna Parón. A frighteningly impressive view.

The events of that evening and the next morning are too complex to detail here. Mike and I had planned to try one of the flutes in the southwest face of the eastern peak, while Franz and Jock had prepared the route to the base of the south ridge which they wanted to attempt. Mike developed a severe headache and was unable to go, so I forced myself upon Franz and Jock. We failed to reach the summit by about four or five leads. Whether this should be attributed to the fact that we were a party of three, or to our horribly late start at 7:30, or to the poor snow-ice conditions, or to the poor weather, is uncertain. But while we were on the ridge, the climbing was interesting, that much is certain. Each of us had three leads before at two in the afternoon we rationalized that we should turn back. The snow was steep but commonly unconsolidated; at our high point it was a breakable crust on top of powder on top of sugary snow on top of ice. I had to plow through to the ice to find anything that would hold my weight, but Jock, when he came up to view the situation, was able to kick usable steps. Nevertheless he agreed that a descent was in order, so our attempt was over. In the days since, I have wondered whether Franz and Jock might not have made it with only two on the rope.

Whether there is a better route than ours, such as the flutes on the face, remains to be tested. The Huber-Koch-Schmidt first-ascent route was the east ridge which has its own set of difficulties. Our south ridge was steep, reaching about 60º near the end of one of Franz’s leads. Here the surface layer was about eight inches thick, powdery and worthless, on top of ice. Franz negotiated this very tricky spot with the skill that comes of experience. The great American game of “Find the Ice” did not just begin, as has been suggested, in the last few years. Andean cheese ice, which will just barely sustain one’s weight, does not yield to French phraseology.

Pirádmide de Garcilaso (19,297 feet); One day before the rest of us, Mike and Burt reached Base Camp where they found George fully recovered. After ten days of inactivity, probably the longest in his lite, George was understandably anxious to start the serious climbing. On July 3 he and Mike were off to try the Pirámide, climbed only once before, on May 28-29, 1957, by Günter Hauser, Horst Wiedmann, Berhard Huhn, and Frieder Knauss. George Lowe’s brief account of their superb climb follows.

“After completing the setup of Camp I on the flat glacier separating Artesonraju and Pirámide, Mike and I started a reconnaissance of the broken glacier which forms the lower part of the north face of Pirámide. By 3:15 we had reached a point two-thirds of the way to the crescent-shaped bergschrund where we planned to make our Camp II. Unable to go further because of sun sloughs off the face above, we dropped our loads and descended to Camp I. That night, after much argument about slide danger, Mike, apprehensive, and I, blindly optimistic after ten days of inactivity, decided to leave at four A.M. in order to get to the bergschrund before the sun heated the face. By dawn we were at the cache. The previously unknown agony of high-altitude climbing became a reality as we struggled with our far too heavy packs up the two difficult pitches leading around the ice cliff below our proposed campsite. We dug a comfortable ice cave under the protective overhanging lip of the ‘schrund, and then put in three leads on the 45° face above, where multiple slush slides and one large rock tried to remove us from the mountain. We cursed the Andean sun as we descended on fixed lines back to the bergschrund. There were more arguments about safety that night with both of us taking our old stands.

“The next morning the Andean sun responded to our curses and failed to show — it began to snow and much of the danger of previous hot days was gone. From the top of the fixed ropes there were four more pitches of mixed water ice and hard neve, comparable to the third section of the Black Ice Couloir in the Tetons. Then a single pitch of stick-all-four-limbs-in-as-far-as-they-will-go and move-upward-faster-than-the-snow-goes-downward and we were on top of the huge ice triangle in the center of the face well away from slide danger. A pitch up some steep but easy flutings, varying from ice to powder, followed by two more leads brought us to the summit at 3:45 P.M. The snow had stopped and the clouds lifted, so we spent some 45 minutes indulging in all the proper summit rites.

“Hoping to reach our comfortable ice cave before dark as we had only down jackets for a bivouac, we started down. Below the flutes we began our rappelling timidly down the 1000 feet of ¼" polypropylene line we had fixed on the way up. Darkness caught us before the end where the rappel from the end of the fixed line hung up. The last two pitches were downclimbed by the light of our erratic headlights. With considerable difficulty we found the exit from the face into the ’schrund where we climbed wearily back into our friendly cave.”

Artesonraju (19,767 feet). When one is young and in the high mountains for the first time, the initial sight of peaks such as Chacraraju and Artesonraju can provide the basis of lasting memories. On my first expedition to Peru, now twenty years past, we topped our first high pass, the saddle between Pisco and Huandoy Este, and there across the Quebrada Paron was the pyramid of Artesonraju. In that year there was only looking and photographing, but plans were made to snatch the second ascent of this peak during our expedition of 1964. But after Chacraraju there was neither time nor food nor energy left for Artesonraju. Although four expeditions had come and climbed the peak, finally in 1971 a dream of nearly twenty years was realized when we reached the summit.

Burt and I settled on the east ridge as the most promising route, and ultimately Mike and George joined us after their climb of Pirámide. But early on Jock and Franz, with thoughts of their success on the north face of Robson, had their eye on the 2100-foot south face. Leaving Camp I they made a higher Camp II from which they put in the first two pitches on the face the afternoon before their summit dash. Here follows Jock’s description of their splendid twenty-pitch climb.

“Tuesday, July 6, 4:00 A.M. We were on the face — four leads in the moonlight, everything clear and moonbright, didn’t need headlights, most exhilarating. Did two more leads in the dark before dawn at six. First ten leads were fairly easy step kicking, straight up the face which sustained its 45° angle all the way. As we climbed beyond the tenth lead, the conditions got icier and in places the rotten snow barely covered the ice beneath. Meanwhile the weather clouded up, signalling the start of the worst snowstorm of the summer. We could no longer see the summit and were no longer sure what line to follow. The 16th lead was Franz’s which involved step-cutting on about 80 feet of hard blue ice. This took us off the main face but as we learned, there were four more leads yet to do to the summit. The snow was falling now as we slogged up a gentle, deep-powder-snow ridge, easing around spooky cornices, peering into the clouds in search of the summit, and spying distant looming séracs (which always turned out to be only a half rope-length away). After four rope-lengths of this (it seemed much longer), at 3:50 P.M. we could climb no more. We declared this to be the summit by placing a wand into the topmost snow. The summit was not unpleasant, which means that it was neither uncomfortably cold nor windy, although it was snowing lightly and we couldn’t see a damn thing. Spent fifteen minutes there snacking. With only two hours left of daylight, we decided to go down rather than bivouac.

“We climbed down precisely the way we had come up, utilizing the same belay stations although we could not find the last few because the falling snow had covered them. By the 10th lead night had fallen but the moon still illuminated the face so that we could climb down all right. By eight P.M. we had returned to our Camp II, a four-hour descent after a 12-hour ascent.”

The east ridge was less of an accomplishment. Yet the struggle in the deep snow approach to the saddle, the excitement of the ‘crux’ of the ridge where it narrowed to a width of about 18 inches with 1000 feet of exposure on either side, and the beauty of the high campsite in a floored crevasse certainly made it all worthwhile. The ridge itself was very straightforward and in 2¾ hours from high camp we were at Jock’s wand. There was, as Franz and Jock had mentioned, another summit bump off to the north. They had been in swirling clouds, and uncertain which point was higher, had settled for the point with the wand. We crossed over to the other bump in about five minutes and found that it was about five feet higher than the point with the wand.

Huandoy Norte (20,981 feet). Little discussion was required before everyone agreed that our next objective should be Huandoy Norte, at almost 21,000 feet the highest of the Parón peaks and fourth highest in the range. Back in 1954 after a determined effort, we made the second ascent of Huandoy, but in the years since four additional ascents had been made. Especially notable were the Swiss climbs of 1959. In a single day from the Parón, Schatz and Reiss climbed the north glacier to the saddle between the west and north peaks, continued to the north summit and descended all the way back to the valley. Our intentions were directed toward the direct north face of the mountain, an almost unbroken expanse of snow and ice to the final rock band just below the summit. This face had caught our attention even on the very first day we entered the canyon. Access to this route was from the west end of the lake, so a few days were lost moving Base Camp.

It was during this period that we learned the lamentable news of our deaths. How it was that the front page of the Lima newspaper Expreso came to carry the black headlines announcing our demise is a story in itself but cannot be recounted here. Suffice it to say that it provided both humor and trouble since I had to leave the mountains to contact the U.S. Embassy to send word to the outside world that we were in fact still very much alive and well. In my absence both Camp I and Camp II were established, both with enormously scenic vistas. Unable to get a ride up the 6000 feet from Caraz to Laguna Parón, I had to hike almost all the way up the road. The next morning I strolled into Base Camp where George was waiting patiently for my return. That same day we packed up the steep canyonside to Camp I. Next day on to Camp II, across a very dangerous route among ice blocks. Next day we climbed to the summit, all of which was a rather fast trip from civilization.

Franz and Mike had already done an excellent job of climbing the first half of the face, leaving 1000 feet of fixed line to speed the final summit push. On this peak at least, we worked out a strategy which utilized the strengths of all the expedition members and gave everyone his share of the lead, a worthwhile principle for all expeditions. We went on three ropes of two: Jock and I first, then Franz and Burt, and finally Mike and George. Each rope was separated by an hour or more with the first rope starting at two A.M. It was a classical Andean night, cold, high, and silent, a combination that lives in memory. Mike had indicated that the face was about 45° and of constant angle; our calculations suggested that it was about 2200 feet in all. With headlights in the middle of the night it seemed, and perhaps was, steeper than Mike had admitted.

At the bergschrund Jock disappeared around and up the corner, using a Gibbs Ascender for a self belay on the fixed rope. When the 150 feet were finally out, I had to start moving. We both moved up the face continuously, counting on the single Gibbs device in the event of a fall, which fortunately never occurred. Jock was so far above that the experience was that of solo climbing, no sound but one’s own, no light but one’s own headlight. Occasionally I would catch an eerie glimpse of Jock’s light unbelievably far above. Then, 500 feet up the face, the buckle on my crampon strap broke and the crampon came off. I was not, considering the circumstances, thinking kind thoughts about the manufacturer who has some obligation to provide safe equipment for a game such as mountaineering. Recent efforts to get safe equipment into climbers’ hands are commendable but must be uniformly applied. The wrist-loop retaining pin of Franz’s new metal shafted axe came out when he was halfway up the Artesonraju face, and he very nearly had a catastrophic loss of his axe. Why is there no call-back policy for defective mountaineering equipment? Dying because of a manufacturing defect is not my idea of the right way to go.

From the top of the fixed rope Jock and I alternated leads for the remainder of the snow and ice face, mostly cutting steps. This use of this decadent technique was of my doing, and probably would not have been Jock’s choice. But let the reader refrain from sneering until he has survived twenty years of high-altitude snow-and-ice climbing of at least moderate calibre. Steps are handy things to have for getting off big mountains and these significantly aided our descent the following day. Long-term survival depends, among other things, on the maintenance of an adequate margin. Whatever else the wave of the future contains, it will have an element of prudence.

While we were advancing, there was adventure below. Franz had intentionally left his crampon straps loose to avoid impeding circulation in his feet. Halfway up the rope one crampon came off and disappeared into the void below, forcing him to retreat using only a single crampon, a neat trick. Burt came along with George and Mike, to whom we gave the lead just below the final rock band. The face, while long, had been of constant angle, 45° or possible 50°, involving nothing really tricky or difficult. But the same could not be said for the rock band above. The next two leads by George and Mike were very difficult indeed, snow-ice which would not quite hold your weight, mixed with ice-covered rock which seemed without holds. Much skill and time were required to pass these obstacles. The summit plateau was reached four leads later, just as the sun was setting over the Cordillera Negra. I was reminded of Schneider’s famous remark about the beauties of an Andean sunset from the summit of a 6000-meter peak. It is all true.

With luck a large ice cave was found for the night. We had planned to bivouac on top and so were prepared. In the morning after our cold night at nearly 21,000 feet we packed up and plodded the final fifty feet to the summit, where I had been some seventeen years earlier. Seventeen years! The inexorable passage of time. In 1954 the last thought from my mind was that I would ever return to this summit. As with most 25 year olds, seventeen years could only have been seen as an eternity, infinite time in the future. For the others in 1971 it was perhaps nothing more than the top of a mountain of the first rank. But for me the experience of returning to a great summit after the passage of one quarter of one’s life was exceptional. The recollections of the magnificent summit view, of the details of the earlier climb, and of my own youth were all brought into sharp focus. But for the others as well, I am sure it had been one of our finest climbs.

Summary of Statistics:

AREA: Cordillera Blanca, Peru

ASCENTS: Pisco Este, c. 19,000 feet, northeast face and couloir, new routes, June 23, 1971 (Glidden, Janis, M. Lowe, Mohling, Orten-burger, Reese).

Nevado de Caraz, west peak, 19,767 feet, second ascent, June 29, 1971 (Glidden, Janis, M. Lowe, Mohling, Ortenburger).

Pirámide de Garcilaso, 19,297 feet, second ascent via north face, July 5, 1971 (G. Lowe, M. Lowe.).

Artesonraju, 19,767 feet, south face, July 6, 1971 (Glidden, Mohling); east ridge, July 9, 1971 (Janis, G. Lowe, M. Lowe, Ortenburger).

Huandoy Norte, 20,981 feet, north face, new route, July 18, 1971 (Glidden, Janis, G. Lowe, M. Lowe, Ortenburger). PERSONNEL: Jocelyn (Jock) Glidden, Dr. Burton Janis, George Lowe, Mike Lowe, Franz Mohling, Leigh Ortenburger, Richard Reese.