American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Seven Days on Huascarán's East Face

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1981

Seven Days on Huascarán’s East Face

Franz Six, Österreichischer Alpenverein

UNDER THE MOST difficult conditions we two Austrian mountain guides, Alois Indrich and I, succeeded in 1979 in making a new direct route in the central part of the east face of Huascarán. Climbing alpine-style, we took seven days and six bivouacs to climb the 4250-foot wall. Severe mixed terrain, rock up to UIAA Grade V and bad rockfall characterized the climb.

By early July, Indrich and I had ascended the Quebradas Ulta and Mátara and were camped at 13,750 feet below Huascarán’s east face. We were heading for the northeast face of Chopicalqui when I fell seriously ill. We descended to Huaraz, where I was put onto antibiotics. Climbing was out of the question for the time being.

By mid July, I was better and began to condition myself. By the end of the month we headed back up the Ulta and Mátara valleys. The previous month we had been heading for Chopicalqui, but Huascarán’s east face now held us fascinated. We had learned that the center of the face was still untouched.* Chopicalqui was forgotten.

On August 2, 1979 Alois Indrich and I left our camp in an idyllic setting on a small lake at 15,425 feet. With 45-pound packs—we were equipped as on a climb in the western Alps—we set out for the foot of the face. We had food and fuel for five days, figuring that we couldn’t be over four days on the climb.

It took us a whole day to work through the severely broken glacier. After a bivouac in the icefall, we attacked the face as soon as it fell into shadow; heavy rockfall made us wait until noon.

A narrow 70° couloir brought us by evening to the beginning of the buttress. This rock pillar, criss-crossed with ice, was in its lower part threatened by extreme rockfall and was much more difficult than expected. Since it would have been suicide to climb the ice gullies on either side, which were uninterruptedly swept by rockfall, we climbed directly up the buttress.

Towards noon of the third day we reached the perpendicular summit wall. We had already become accustomed to the fact that it began daily to snow at that hour.

On the fourth day the route-finding became more complicated and the climbing more difficult. The weather grew worse and worse with cloud and snowfall. Fuel for melting drinking water was getting short. Yet the wall still soared upward for a couple of hundred meters. Extremely difficult rock, coated with ice, rose above us.

On the fifth day I tried a traverse on the left. The slabs seemed impossible. Alois followed amazed, despite having often climbed with me. When I shouted down, “Take care,” he knew I was in a frightfully awkward situation. While he belayed all the more carefully, I groped slowly diagonally left. My front-points bored through the shell ice and hit granite. Suddenly a big ice sheet broke away under my feet. In vain I clawed with ice-axe, hammer and front-points and pitched into the foggy abyss. Seconds later I hung on the rope and clambered back up, cursing. Indrich then tried the traverse higher up, but it wouldn’t go. The situation seemed hopeless.

Below us were 3000 feet of perpendicular rock and ice. Food and fuel were nearly used up. The ice and rock lay covered by new snow. After uncomfortable bivouacs and energetic rock-climbing, we were showing the first signs of exhaustion. Retreat … that decision was the obvious one! Two days of rappelling, traversing, down-climbing with terrible rockfall in the lower part. It was no agreeable prospect. We got back to our previous night’s bivouac spot late in the afternoon.

At dusk we crept into our sleeping bags, cowered on a tiny ledge and watched the snowflakes settle on the down bags. We dozed, thinking of the comforts of home. The snow brought us back to reality. Both of us reflected, the same thoughts going around and around in our heads. Simultaneously we spoke, “We’ve got to give it another try tomorrow!” We would have to mobilize our reserves to get up the rest of the wall. Confidence grew as we talked. Our morale improved. Courage and strength rose with the dawn. The last stars twinkled. We could hardly wait to start up the crack system above our heads.

Alois knew it and so did I; we had only a tiny chance. We had taken merely five days’ food and fuel. We had only a half a fuel cartridge left. I was so dry I could have gulped water like a cow. An icicle in the mouth may fool thirst a bit. But what is worse than thirst when you are dehydrated is the loss of strength. Leaden fatigue! Lethargy! Only thedesire to get off this damned wall drove us forward. “How idiotic,” I think, “to climb of your own free will onto the face and then curse it because it is harder than you expected!”

Two rope-lengths from the bivouac to the beginning of the crack system take us all morning. I belay beneath the overhanging start. Alois climbs through, tries the crack but can’t make it. He takes off his pack and hangs it off my belay pins. Another try, straining, panting and down back again. Exhausted, Alois collapses next to me. Finger massage. He kneads his forearms, beats his hands to warm them. A last try. This time he gets over the cursed spot. He sets up a belay and I follow, somehow dragging the packs after me. If we only had Jümars, but we have brought nothing but the essentials.

The terrain gets no easier. For hours we worm our way upwards, work up iced-up cracks and over niches. We hardly notice that, as always, it has been snowing since noon. Nor do we notice how time has gone by until suddenly it is dark. Alois is 100 feet above me. I am lying on a crooked ice ledge in the vertical wall. Overcome with fatigue, we bivouac where we are. No place to sit up; nothing to drink; frigid cold. I force myself to pull out my sleeping bag, crawl in and tie myself to the wall, although I’d almost rather just hang on the rope and do nothing.

I call … shout. Alois doesn’t answer. The wind? Is he alive? I hope he got into his sleeping bag. Has he frozen? What can I do here alone? I can’t climb unbelayed; I’m too weak. … Fear!

On the seventh day we continue up the snowy, icy rock. A last upswing. Alois struggles up the overhand and suddenly … a moderately steep ice slope that leads to the summit. What joy! We have done it. Finally!

The strong tensions of the last days give way to unforeseen feelings of happiness. Two figures stumble up the white summit plateau, exhausted and relieved. We embrace, laugh, beat on each other’s shoulders. We stay on top a long time. It is late afternoon before we make our way down to the Garganta, the deep col between the north and south peaks.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Cordillera Blanca, Peru.

New Route: Huascarán, 6768 meters, 22,205 feet, by the center of the East Face, August 2 to 8, 1979 (Franz Six, Alois Indrich).

* This difficult face had been climbed twice before, on the left side by Australians Wayatt and Ryan, New Zealander Coradine and American Schneider from June 21 to 24, 1971 (A.A.J., 1972, pages 30-34), and on the right by Austrians Hasitschka, Koblmüller, Lackner, Pollet and Schulz from July 8 to 26, 1972 (A.A.J., 1973, pages 320-321).

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