Ranrapalca's North Face, Cordillera Blanca

Publication Year: 1976.

Ranrapalca’s North Face, Cordillera Blanca

Michael J. Rourke

ADMITTEDLY. ours is an enviable position. Few visitors to the Cordillera Blanca have had the opportunity to stay as long as they would have liked; for Curry Slaymaker, Murray Johns, and myself it is our campo de trabajo. Nevertheless, we were beginning to feel like tethered animals just beyond the reach of a late summer garden’s ripe produce. For Curry and me, employees of the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture and administrators of Parque Nacional Huascarán, the frustration was a bit less. We could at least program extended weekend trips to the mountains which corresponded with our work. But Murray, who had interested us in the north face last year after studying it from various communications stations in the Cordillera Negra, had sold his soul to G.T.E. and had been unable to get away even for a walk in the campo in the last eleven months. By mid-August, however, we finally agreed that the weather would soon be changing and that a few of our responsibilities could be attended later and so on the 16th we left for Collón and the Quebrada Ishinka.

One learns a great deal facilitating climbers’ movement to and from the mountains, so that I felt I had pretty well mastered the campesino’s understanding of time. Needless-to-say, we all were very surprised when Modesto Sánchez, our arriero from Collón, presented himself promptly at six A.M. with three exceptionally fit animals just as he promised the previous evening. I still wonder what his thoughts must have been as he patiently waited an hour and a half for three people who had taken about that much time the day before underlining the importance of his punctuality.

Ishinka’s quiñual forests are the most extensive in the western Cordillera Blanca and the valley itself must be considered one of the most exceptional in the Callejón de Huaylas. Murray paused more than once during the hike in to point to a possible line on various rock spires, imagining himself in North Wales. He was soaring after his long absence from the mountains.

We established an acclimatization camp at 14,500 feet in Yana- rajupampa just below Laguna Ishinka with a breathtaking panorama of Nevados Urus, Tokllaraju, and Palcaraju. The following two days were used shuttling equipment to the base of the north face where we established our Base Camp at 16,150 feet. I had made a reconnaissance of this area a month earlier and had been extolling its views since then. Neither Curry nor Murray felt I had exaggerated. At that time I judged that we would gain access to the face via a 250-foot, nearly vertical couloir a bit to the west of the face itself, bypassing what appeared to me a very complicated icefall which crossed the face at about 17,400 feet. By our August arrival, however, the ice in the couloir had disappeared and it was evident that it was not the most feasible way up. Murray estimated that the most direct line followed a 650-foot snow ramp to and through the icefall, which we agreed to try. We had brought 1200 feet of additional line which we intended to fix if necessary in order to finish the final 2000 feet above the icefall in a single day. Curry and I used the next two days preparing a route up the ramp and through the icefall which presented challenging gymnastic exercises in ice chimneys and labyrinthine chutes. Our fixed rope led us just below a bergschrund 80 feet above the icefall. Remembering that we had brought two climbing ropes for rappelling during the descent, Murray suggested we gain a bit more time for our summit attempt and fixed our climbing rope across a delicate bridge above the ’schrund.

According to a preliminary climbing schedule prepared before departing Huaraz and designed to facilitate Murray’s acclimatization, we were to rest the next day. However, our spirits were high and we all felt strong so we decided to get an early start the following morning and go for the summit.

For some reason the best laid plans the night before never seem to be realized the morning after. Our “early start” resulted in an 8:45 A.M. departure. However, the night had been clear and we were confident that our efforts during the previous two days would assure our success. We ascended the fixed ropes in good time, but the weather began to deteriorate as we crossed the bergschrund. Murray and I leapfrogged leads up the face securing our progress with pickets and screws, confident of Curry’s weighty belay in the center of the rope. Our progress was slowed by the most unusual snow and ice conditions I have yet experienced in the Cordillera Blanca. The best description I can give is a surface of sawtoothed waves, the crests of which had to be knocked away so as to advance to the next level, and this on slopes averaging 55-60°. By 6:15 P.M., Murray had in 55 minutes completed the final pitch of the face up 60° ice capped with an unstable rock mantle. By the time I reached his anchor the sun had set and visibility was nearly zero.

Our only disappointment while planning this climb was knowing that the face did not lead directly to Ranrapalca’s 20,237-foot summit. In fact, we didn’t exactly know where we would be after completing the face. From Huaraz it appeared that the summit was set back toward the southeast. Indeed it is, about half a mile, as we discovered the next morning after a moderately frightful bivouac. We spent a short while scouting a possible descent down the northeast ridge, dismissed it, then entrusted the dubious leading honors to Curry, who magnanimously broke steps across the crusted pampa to the final summit pyramid where we exchanged one-at-a-time ascents up the final 100 feet to the summit.

The seven-hour descent involved laborious down-climbing, carefully probing each footstep through our frozen ocean. The decision to leave for the summit a day earlier than planned proved a wise one as it began to snow heavily upon our return to Base Camp and continued during the following three days as we cleaned the mountain and departed the valley.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Cordillera Blanca, Peru.

New Route: Ranrapalca, 6,168 meters (20,237 feet), North Face, August 22, 1975.

Personnel: Murray Johns, Australia; Curry Slaymaker and Michael Rourke, United States.