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The South Face of Jirishanca

The South Face of Jirishanca

DEAN CALDWELL

JIRISHANCA didn’t like our coming up today; the storm began about noon. It seems the season is over, but the end of July is too early — we should still be able to plan on a period of good weather for the wall. Two months ago I thought the good weather hadn’t come yet. It still hasn’t come. Could the climbing season end before it starts? Foul weather for the last week straight! I’m glad we pulled back and didn’t start the wall last week when we were up here.

Jon Bowlin and I are the only two from the expedition left. That doesn’t seem like very many right now. It’s what I’ve always thought of as being the good way to climb though, even on the big ones. Two can do everything: climb the mountain and carry the goodies. More provide company and confidence. Jirishanca always seemed as if it wanted two: a clean and simple party dancing on a magnificent piece of ice, but we’re still a long way from the world, a bit lonely, insecure.

I stand beside the tent and savor the place. Above the roar of the stove, a less friendly roar comes from above. I drop and roll backwards into the tent zipping up the alcove. The tent isn’t much of a bomb shelter, but it gives moral support. Falling ice is thumping all around the tent and then powdered ice sprays on the tent walls. They sag under the weight of the dust that has drifted onto them — everything else has gone overhead.

“Looks like we dug deep enough.”

“Guess so. We’re still here.”

The next morning is still cold steel when we finish digging equipment out of the snow and move up the line we have fixed over the schrund. It is cold, very cold. We wear everything we have. The sun won’t hit us until after eleven, five hours yet. Packframes have a journeyman’s skill at grabbing icicles. Finally my pack bounces over the lip. John jümars up, wearing the second pack.

A thin cloud of snow drifted on the surface of the wall — a twelve-inch halo that sifted coldness into every niche. Fine white granules collect in each fold, pile on our shoulders and balance momentarily on the head of a piton. Plumes of snow lift from the summit and now burn in the sun from the other side. Nebulae stream into the blue-black sky and warp into the shadow of the mountain above us.

We climb a third of a pitch and drive a pin. Pitches seem like running laps. It’s a clean wall, an air-brushed sketch. We lose feeling for where we are on it — a big place. We move left to the corner where the south face meets the west face, where we might be able to move together if it isn’t case hardened as the ice in the center of the face. Another terrible idea! The corner consists of snow pretending to be hypnotized freeze-dried peas. We stay in the center of the wall.

We move out to the corner again at dusk to bivouac. The ice is like Swiss cheese and cuts easily; a ledge soon accommodates the tent. The floor is a trough with a high lip on the outside to discourage things and people from rolling off. There’s room for two sleeping bags and a stove as long as they are all in one pile.

We move early. This is an easy bivouac to leave. We climb fast again, but still holding back a little and climbing in pitches. The ice is strange. A toe will kick into it now, breaking the crust and passing into the snow beneath. But when a heel reaches the crust, the toe is through the snow and into nothing — kicked through a shell of snow into an air space beneath. The wall seems to have a sunburn and is peeling. We’re climbing on the dead skin and can’t see any reason for the skin to stay where it is. As Jon drives another pin, an explosive crack comes from the ice. The huge piece to which we are nailed quivers, and we stop breathing. It would be a long ride back down to the glacier. Gently Jon cuts a hole through the soft shell and drives a piton into the translucent blue solidness two feet beneath.

The wall is slightly steeper now; it’s more comfortable to rest a forehead on the ice between moves. We’re only a pitch from the rock band, maybe only seven or eight to the top. I’d hoped for a ramp through the rocks. There are only a few streaks of ice through the chunky mess, but that’s for tomorrow. Tonight’s bivouac won’t be a nice one. In the concrete-like ice we have to be satisfied with a three-foot square — enough for one to perch on, but there are two of us. It is bitterly cold.

Crampons hit rock and don’t like it. We’ve got to scurry today — there are 700 feet to go before we reach the sky and that far back to the bivy. Fixed lines from Cassin’s west-face climb go 40 feet into the rock band. That’s strange; the rope stops below the obvious crux. They must have probed here, pulled off and maybe moved around the corner to the left. That would be more consistent with the west face. But our line is here.

Nut country: shattered rock and black ice. I place two nuts below the crux, a twelve-foot overhanging bulge of rock, try the bulge, moan vigorously and check the nuts. I snort and try the bulge again; it works this time. I head for an ice bulge and anchor to it. We’re done with the rock. Jon’s next bit will be up a thin chute of ice. He may reach that black buttress in a pitch. We can skirt the buttress on the right and get on top of it. It looks like an easy pitch or so on snow from here to the top. We leave all belay anchors for rappels on the way down; that will pick up a few minutes.

At three we stood in the plumes of snow born on the summit. Wind shrieked up from the east and inflated us. For an instant we knew the consciousness of Jirishanca and saw the world as it does. There was nothing to say, nothing to do, and nowhere to go but down.

Summary; of statistics:

AREA: Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru.

NEW ROUTE: Jirishanca, 20,099 feet, via the South face, July 31 to August 3, 1971, Summit on August 2 (Jon Bowlin, Dean Caldwell).