American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The West Face of Huantsán

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  • Publication Year: 1980

The West Face of Huantsán

Peter Lehner, James Wuest and Brinton Young

During the summer of 1979, six of us from the Harvard Mountaineering Club accomplished the first ascent of the west face of the Nevado Huantsán in Peru. Huantsán, at 20,982 feet the fifth highest mountain in the country, rises from the head of the Quebrada Rajuqolta some twenty kilometers east of the climbing center of Huaraz. It has a reputation for beauty and difficulty. Our group—Carl Lehner, Michael Lehner, Peter Lehner, Karen Messer, Jim Wuest, and Brinton Young—had served long apprenticeships together in New England, but had little experience at high altitude. Preferring to fail on a hard new route than to fail on an old route, we began an ascent of the west face of Huantsán which ended successfully thirty-five days later.

Climbing from Base Camp near the lake, Rajuqolta, at 14,200 feet, we avoided the complex and unstable lower reaches of the west glacier by taking advantage of moraines and ridges of rock south and east of the lake. These intersected the glacier far above its icefall and permitted us to establish a camp at 17,500 feet just below the face and near the start of more challenging climbing. Two shields of ice separated by short vertical pitches rose above this camp for a thousand feet. Although these shields were noisy with the hum of falling ice, they did not appear to be swept by major avalanches. A traversing ascent of these two shields led to a tongue of rock which defined one edge of the immense central couloir of the west face. We eventually climbed every pitch on the face free; but on our first major ascent, we decided to safeguard our progress with fixed ropes, anchored primarily with pins and with screws in the hard blue ice of the shields. When progress could no longer be made conveniently if we retreated to the glacier each night, supplies were carried to the top of the fixed ropes. Brinton Young and Jim Wuest then led up to 19,000 feet, where they bivouacked for three nights on a narrow ledge of ice. During this period they surmounted the pillars and bulges of water ice in the central couloir, fixing ropes along a rising traverse which ended in a bergschrund at 19,700 feet at the left edge of the couloir. Above rose the next major obstacle, a steep band of rock some seven hundred feet high. During five days of their best efforts, Young, Wuest and Karen Messer bivouacked in the bergschrund and attacked this band of rock, alternating leads past 20,000 feet, up pitches of vertical water ice, steep rock, and intricate mixed sections. Then Jim, a chemistry teacher, returned to professional commitments in Cambridge, and Peter fell ill. In another push, Young, Messer and Michael Lehner pitched a tent in the bergschrund, fixed two more leads on hard rock, and finally gained the last icefield. On August 2, they jümared the ropes, climbed the fluted icefield, and reached the north ridge through a chink in its cornices. A short walk led to the summit.

Peter Lehner: To climb in the Andes had been a goal of mine ever since I had seen them when I was a student in Colombia in 1975. In 1979 I organized the expedition with my brothers and three good friends from Harvard. A photo of Huantsán and John Ricker’s schematic maps led me to choose the Rajuqolta valley for its variety of climbs. Little did I then know the miles my pen would travel before we left. Besides figuring out what we should need in Peru and designing equipment, I must have written every mountain equipment manufacturer in the country offering to test the newest line—all in vain.

Jim Wuest: To improve our chances of success, we trained with dedication. We ran distances, we ran intervals, we ran up stairs, we lifted weights, we did pull-ups, and we squeezed springs. Sometimes we even climbed. By late spring, when we ran the Boston Marathon together, we were very fit. After that, we continued to exercise by sparring vigorously over innumerable questions which provoked passionate but naïve debate, like whether to use tubular or t-shaped pickets, what length of fixed rope to bring, and whether to bring oxygen for medical emergencies. Usually we made peace by agreeing to bring everything imaginable. Ours was therefore a ponderous expedition, and although we had a comfortable walk to Base Camp ourselves, the twenty-odd burros with us did not.

Peter: This was our first visit to the land of the Inca, so we acclimatized in Cuzco and Machu Picchu before reaching Huaraz on June 25. Ad Carter had put me in touch with Glicerio Henostroza, a man of consummate organizational skills and the only local climber who thought our route possible. As he was not able to accompany us, he found a porter, Marcelino Vargas, and a base-camp guardian, Fortunato Henostroza. Marcelino, a small farmer forty-two years old, has been working in the mountains during the Andean summers since age twelve. He felt as comfortable threading his way through an icefall as shooting vizcacha (a rabbit-like rodent) with his slingshot for fresh meat. His infallible good cheer meant as much to us as did Huantsán.

Base Camp was situated on one of the rare flat and dry spaces near the head of the valley. To the east rose Huantsán. On its left, we could see the north ridge by which Lionel Terray had first gained the summit in 1952 after a difficult siege. Leigh Ortenburger made the second ascent in 1958 by a similar route and remarked, “The west face was much too steep to be climbable.” (A.A.J., 1959, p. 181). The south ridge, to our right, remains unclimbed to the top, having turned back two expeditions at the rock band near the summit. The east ridge, not visible from our camp, repelled over six attempts before yielding to 7000 feet of fixed rope and the combined efforts of two teams. To the north and south of our Base Camp were many smaller peaks with climbs at all levels of difficulty on which we practiced throughout the summer.

Jim: Karen, two-thirds my weight, typically carried as much as I did, and the Lehners’ enthusiasm for heavy loads was congenital and therefore not infectious. Michael was capable of a particularly fast pace and a flow of obscure technical observations which satisfied intellectual needs the rest of us had not recognized. Their inspired efforts allowed us to carry supplies up the face and ascend to entirely new levels of fatigue. Our starts became preposterously late and our rests incomprehensibly long, and when we equalized loads, our bickering was not always good-natured. When our packs were full, our minds were empty, and frequently the most important thing in the world was some little depression in the ice ten feet ahead which might hold one foot nearly flat during a few precious minutes of rest.

Brinton and I cut loose from the camp below the face and led past the top of the fixed ropes to 19,000 feet. The steep ice and rock of this section did not welcome us with a suitable place to retire, but we are men who appreciate luxury and are willing to work for it. After five hours of chopping at a bulge of water ice, we had fashioned a ledge some twenty inches wide and ten feet long. Life on this ledge required an alertness and grace which we could not command. First the pot lid sailed away, then Brinton’s axe Numenor vanished over the side, and when he turned around in despair, he sank the points of his crampons into our bottle of fuel. We spent three nights there, but we never enjoyed any peace of mind.

Brinton Young—Two hard leads: Above the bivy ledge the ice became steeper and more brittle, ascending in a series of blue bulges. These led to a small platform under an overhanging 25-foot wall of ice. No lie. It must have been ten degrees beyond vertical for the first ten feet. With a solid screw for protection, I grunted up the wall. Fortunately, the ice was soft and I carried no pack. Following, Jim found he had to drop his pack to climb it. He offered his ration of chocolate as a reward, and we lunched, encouraged that the techniques we’d learned on New England waterfalls could also carry us up this strange and faraway mountain.

High on the rock band, Karen and I watched Jim lead up a narrow ice gully. He came to its top, peered around a corner, then faced up to the steep rock in front of him. He moved tentatively up to the right, placed protection, ran out fifteen feet, then stalled under a smooth overhang. At length he summoned his courage and committed himself to an awkward layback and delicate sloping mantel, which brought him to easier ground. Above, he placed an anchor so intricate I thought he had modelled the bonding of some new organic molecule. Jümaring the pitch took me an hour.

The Summit: Jim had gone home and Peter was sick. We were uncertain how quickly he would recover. After some painful deliberation, he told Michael, Karen, and me to go ahead and to clean the face on our descent, thereby renouncing his chance to share in the climax of the expedition he had brought together.

The summit push began at 1:30 A.M. with café con leche at Camp III (19,700 feet). By headlamp we jümared up the rockband, the lights of Huaraz glimmering behind us. Dawn broke as we passed the last desperate rock pitches and gained a triangular icefield below the summit ridge. We placed protection but moved together up the icefield, which was easy except where we traversed its unstable flutes of snow. Our last obstacle was the skyline ridge, where massive cornices drooped over the icefield. But we found a weakness, a cleft between two cornices, and one by one we thrashed up the collapsing walls of this cleft to reach the ridge. We stepped around a corner, and the ridge rose gently to the summit, 200 feet away. In a drift at the top, we buried two important pieces of equipment—Peter’s T-shirt and Jim’s empty bottle of Yukon Jack.

For the next three days, we descended 26 rappels and cleaned the route.

Reflections: The mountain, which rose out of the green Rajuqolta valley like a white fountain, menaced and allured at the same time. We were intimidated when we first saw it, yet how eager we were to approach it, to scale its icy walls, as though to climb it would be to possess its beauty forever. But our mood changed as the siege wore on. Loads, dozens of loads to carry, day after day, week after week, some on loose talus, some on steep ice, front-pointing for hours until I howled in pain. The mountain became a program of arduous tasks, to be postponed whenever possible. “You have work to do,” it said as we looked up from the lower camps. Others—Peter, Carl and Michael Lehner—bore the brunt of this work, but I did enough to hate it. “Climbing is boring and stupid,” I wrote in my diary. Even the summit brought no exhilaration, only a fresh set of problems. How can we clean 3500 feet of rope?

Afterwards in Base Camp, we packed gear and looked back, our eyes retracing the lines we had climbed. “It’s beautiful again,” said Karen.

Peter: Although Carl and I enjoyed the elation of the Huantsán Wrapped in white clouds, it was as vast and enticing as before. ascent by the others, something was missing for us. So while the others were resting, we set out for a quick ascent of the north ridge of Cashan Este (18,776 feet), a new route on a steep peak which had seen only one ascent. Leaving at four P.M. after Carl had made a carry down from the glacier, we hiked up three thousand feet in just over two hours. We started onto the ice of the northeast slope for we had hoped to climb the ridge by the light of the full moon. A cloud cover, however, forced a bivouac on a flat boulder. As sleep was almost impossible, we set out very early the next day. Unfortunately, the previously selected couloir ascended the path of falling rocks, so we continued up the slope to about 17,900 feet, moving together across the nieves penitentes. Here a rock traverse led right onto the snowy north ridge. This was an airy but reasonable route even in the thickening snowstorm, and eventually it led us to the summit. It was then ten A.M. We were expected at Base by two o’clock for the celebration feast. Exhausted, we stumbled into camp at 2:05. There we drank to Jim back in Cambridge and to Huantsán.

Area: Cordillera Blanca, Peru.

Ascents: Huantsán (20,982 feet), via the west face (new route) from Quebrada Rajuqolta, July 2 to August 6, 1979; summit reached on August 2 (M. Lehner, Messer, Young).

Cashan Este (18,776 feet), via the north ridge (new route), August 7 (C. Lehner, P. Lehner).

Rurec (18,701 feet), via the northwest slope, July 9 (C. Lehner, P. Lehner, Vargas).

Yahuarraju (18,619 feet), via the north ridge, July 2 (Young), July 6 (Messer, Vargas, Wuest), July 9 (C. Lehner, P. Lehner, Vargas).

P 5406 (17,736 feet), via the east slope, August 2 (C. Lehner, Vargas).

P 5377 (17,642 feet), via the east face and north ridge, July 27 (C. Lehner).

Personnel: Peter Lehner, leader, Carl Lehner, Michael Lehner, Karen Messer, Jim Wuest, Brinton Young, Americans; Fortunato Henostroza, Marcelino Vargas, Peruvians.

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