West Ridge of Nevado Santa Cruz

Publication Year: 1981.

West Ridge of Nevado Santa Cruz

Matthew Wells

HERNANDO PIZARRO FIRST entered the Callejón de Huaylas in January of 1533. He and his small army of uninvited conquerors had been dispatched from the Inca stronghold of Cajamarca by his brother, Francisco, to collect a portion of the royal ransom necessary to free the captive Inca monarch, Atahuallpa. The latest installment of the shameful ransom was to be garnered from the coastal religious center of Pachacamac, close to present-day Lima.

Pizarro’s passage and that of his group was chronicled by Miguel Estete. Estete noted the beauty of the Callejón, the comfortable change in climate and the hospitality of the Indians that greeted the Spaniards as they made their initial trespass into the countryside. The weary soldiers took the opportunity to rest themselves, their horses and their conscript native porters in the ancient community of Huaylas, located at 9100 feet on the eastern slope of the Cordillera Negra.

These international adventurers were the first European travellers to view the spectacular ice peaks of the range now known as the Cordillera Blanca. Today, the twentieth-century view of the Cordillera is no less impressive than it was to those first tourists.

From Huaylas, the most dominant and beautiful peak to be seen is 20,537-foot Santa Cruz, sometimes called Pukaraju, mountain of Red Ice, or the Pico de Huaylas. Huaylas is not easily reached and most foreign tourists pass far below it on their bumpy way to the Cañón del Pato, not realizing the awesome view of the Blanca that awaits those willing to invest themselves and their time.

Hans Kinzl and Erwin Schneider published a superb geographic and photographic description of the Cordillera Blanca and the Callejón de Huaylas after their expeditions in 1932 and 1936. In their book they featured a stunning group of photographs with a print of the west ridge and northwest face of Santa Cruz. I was very impressed with the photograph of the mountain when I first saw it, but was even more impressed with Santa Cruz when I viewed it from the summits of Alpamayo an Quitaraju years later. From that time on I harbored a desire some day to experience the beauty of the nevado and perhaps climb a route to its summit. I was particularly excited by the possibility of attempting a route on the unclimbed west side of the mountain. I wrote Tom McCrumm and a friend, Ken Jern, for information on the mountain and an account of their west-ridge attempt in 1973.

The years passed. I made a series of trips to South America to climb and ski. Once I got so close to my dream as to begin a route on the icy west ridge of Santa Cruz, only to be disappointed by equipment failure and a partner with dysentery. The dream was shelved for a future season.

Fortunately, the 1980 season afforded me the opportunity to return to Peru. In May, I travelled south with friends Tina Cole, Keith Hadley and Madaleen O’Brien. We spent the usual few days in Lima visiting with friends from the Club Andino, and then proceeded to Huaraz.

Things had changed in Ancash and especially in Huaraz. It had been only two years, but things were visibly changed! It wasn’t so much the increased price of Cerveza Cristal, arroz con polio or how many fun tickets you could get for your U.S. dollar. … There was more pavement everywhere; the military was impressively blasting and constructing a road over Portachuelo de Llanganuco. Some said the intent was to go all the way to Colcabamba. Travel was easier from Lima; 727s were landing with ease and frequency at Anta, 12,000 feet below the massive summit of Huascarán. There were more French hippies, American catalogue campers, packaged adventures, high-altitude hang-glider pilots, foreign coqueros and skiers of the extreme. Adventurers were coming from great distances to get into serious trouble and even lose their lives. There were the usual mountaineering mishaps, but while we were in the Blanca, there was an increase of bizarre and unrelated behavior and accidents. Equipment rip-offs were common in the more popular quebradas, hotel robbery seemed to be on the increase in Huaraz, an Israeli lost his life in a fall from the trail while hiking and three West Germans had the misfortune to be shot and beheaded near Yanama. As one could easily tell, tourism was booming and wasn’t about to deny the denizens their due prosperity or chance to see the circus.

After a short period acclimatizing and climbing in the upper Quebrada Yanapaccha we returned to Huaraz, met another partner, Ron Matous, packed our food and equipment, then departed for the relative tranquility of the lower Río Santa.

The next few days were spent walking to Santa Cruz from Hacienda Colcas. One gains altitude rapidly and passes through many climatic zones in the Blanca. Within one day we had passed from the arid desert of the lower river valley through the verdant and prosperous agricultural community of Caranca; explored the ruins of Pampa Wallqayán; and cooked our evening meal sitting in the frosted grass near Tsakiccocha as we watched the sun’s last rays slip behind the Cordillera Negra.

The following day our group completed the remaining leg of the journey over a trail grown in with lupine, sticker grass and rima-rima. We were thrilled with the vistas encountered at every turn. Then as we crossed the pass near Qenwapunku, Santa Cruz greeted us, looming as in my memory with clouds drifting around the upper reaches of the mountain. We waited for the mist to clear and looked at the route we hoped to accomplish. The mountain was magnificent, with vertical relief of more than 5400 feet from its summit to Yuraccocha, the large glacial lake at the base of its western flank. The valley below the lake was equally inviting and beautiful. There were small lakes and marshes full of ducks and geese, granite walls and unmolested forests of queñua: home of puma, deer and fox.

Few mountaineers have seen the west side of Santa Cruz unless they have visited Huaylas or the northern sections of the Cordillera Negra and happen to be rewarded with clear weather and an unobscured view to the east. The west side cannot be seen from the valley floor, from the rather popular route of approach to Alpamayo or the Rajucolta valley. Perhaps for this reason, the mountain had remained unclimbed from the west.

We occupied ourselves that evening by eating and preparing for the ascent. We located a comfortable camp in the high grasses below Yuraccocha and marveled at the spillway constructed by the workers that had left the ruins among which we were camped. Electro-Peru instituted a program to install spillways to artificially lower the level of many high lakes in the 1960’s. This was done to prevent flooding or sudden water releases caused by earthquakes or avalanches. Such sudden releases are obviously a hazard to life and property in the lower valleys.

The following afternoon, Ron, Keith and I skirted the icefall and lower glacier and placed a camp on the col at 17,500 feet between Quebrada Yuraccocha and Quebrada Rajucolta. The next morning we ascended through broken ice and on high-angle snow slopes of the lower west ridge to a bivouac site under a prominent sickle-shaped ice wall at 19,000 feet. The weather began to deteriorate and we began the night hoping for the best. Early-morning light greeted us as we traversed from the ridge out onto the ice runnels of the west face. We climbed simultaneously, putting in and taking out ice screws for protection on the 55° to 60° ice for perhaps 1200 vertical feet, all the while ascending in the ice runnels. The weather was a mixed blessing, just overcast enough to prevent reflection from the snow and ice, yet clear and calm enough to give us confidence to continue to the summit. We finished with the ice and proceeded on high-angle snow slopes and corniced ridges to a point where the west ridge terminated. From that point on we traversed the summit shoulder on both the southwest and south sides to the actual summit. The weather remained hazy and overcast, yet the view was fantastic. I looked at my wrist watch and noticed that it was four P.M.

We down climbed in the late afternoon light, reaching the ice flutingsjust as Pukaraju’s red ice faded in the darkness. The night passed slowly but not entirely uncomfortably as we descended one after another down our ascent route. There was no light from the moon or stars and we used our headlamps only when moving. Otherwise, we stood in the black waiting for each other as we did a series of nine long rappels.

The three of us reached our last bivouac site at 1:30 A.M., thankful for small favors and our overall good fortune. The next morning dawned slowly and I remember watching with fascination as the profile of the Blanca was cast in shadow on the seemingly vertical valley walls of the not-so-distant Cordillera Negra. Probably the most amazing realization was the fact that we were actually still midway up Santa Cruz, frozen in our bivouac, suspended in shadow against the Cordillera Negra. How magic the silhouette was! We watched as the first sun rays crept down from the barren summits across the valley, dissolving the morning shadows and reaching the town of Huaylas, sparkling in the clear morning, receiving her café del sol. … And we had ascended our dream route, Santa Cruz, Pico de Huaylas.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Cordillera Blanca, Peru.

New Route: Nevado Santa Cruz, 6259 meters, 20,537 feet, West Ridge, June 16 to 19, 1980; summit reached June 18.

Personnel: Keith Hadley, Ron Matous, Matthew Wells.