Innocents in Peru
Yves Laforest, Canada
we COMPLETED A TEAM of six climbers two weeks before departure: five from the Province of Québec, Jocelyn Ouellet, Jean-François Denis, Gérard Bourbonnais, Serge Dufour and me and one from Nevada, Mike Tupper. Two other Québecers were along as camp caretakers: François Mercier and Monique Marseille. On May 16 it was the kick-off for Lima.
At 10,000 feet in Huaraz, we feel the first altitude symptoms. We take three or four days for acclimatization. We had planned to climb all summer as follows. We would set a 15-day Base Camp in one of the many quebradas (valleys). To reach it we would travel as a group. Above Base Camp, we would work as independent parties of two or three. The decisions concerning the climbing were the responsibility of each party according to its technical experience and acclimatization. Then we would come back to town to rest, replenish our supplies and start all over again in another quebrada. So much for theory; now the practice!
Our first objective is the south face of Ocshapalca from Base Camp at 13,800 feet on Laguna Llaca. From the beginning, everything goes wrong. To reach Base Camp we have to drive 28 kilometers. Since we are eight and have too much gear for the four-cylinder pick-up truck, the driver refuses to carry us all in one trip. After the four-hour round-trip he returns, saying his truck is broken by so hard a trip. We hire one of his friends with a not much better truck. We are stopped just before sunset by a locked cattle gate three or four kilometers short of Base Camp. Half the group has left for Base Camp, carrying gear. Monique and Serge are alone at Base Camp without a stove. They will be sick all night. Jean-François is in a small cabin without a sleeping bag, a kilometer from Base Camp. He has a stove but no food. The rest of us are at the gate in a better condition but without food. By the night of May 22, we are all at Base Camp, exhausted. Parties form. Mike and I will go together. Jocelyn, Gérard and Jean-François will form the other party, while Serge will not be able to leave Base Camp and the toilet!
The next days we follow the principle: climb high and sleep low, until we reach the bivouac site at the very base of the south face of Ocshapalca. On the day of the climb, of course we have a late start. The other party turns back after four or five pitches. Mike and I have to quit some 200 feet below the top of the face, tired and not carrying bivy gear or enough food and water. We crawl to Base Camp and then to Huaraz.
Our next objectives are in the Quebrada Santa Cruz: the south face of Taulliraju and the southwest face of Alpamayo. Huaraz gives most of us the usual stomach complaint: the turista. Weak as kittens, we start the two days’ hike to the Taulliraju Base Camp. At camp everything seems to work better. Parties form differently and everyone is moving rapidly to bivy sites. But reality is different from appearances. Jean-François and Serge are going for the “standard” route of Taulliraju, the north face, while Jocelyn and I opt for the south face. Mike and Gérard stay in Base Camp, still suffering from the last raid on town. A faulty stove compels us to go back to Base Camp to find out that Mike has decided to go back to the States. Jocelyn tells us that he wants to go back too. A week later, having had trouble on their route, Jean-François and Serge return to Montreal. From the original party of eight, we are now four, two of them camp caretakers.
The day of Mike’s and Jocelyn’s departure, I team up with Gérard Bourbonnais to climb back to the bivy site where all our gear has been left for the attempt. The following day, a providential white-out and a light snowfall pin us down at the bivouac. We use this rest time to collect our wits. We are here in Peru with plenty of time, food, gear and money to stay for a while. We are acclimatized and don’t feel problems climbing or bivouacking above 5000 meters. The weather clears in the afternoon. We then get a good look at the face itself. It looks long, steep, hard, but possible. Tomorrow we’ll make it!
On June 11 we wake up at two o’clock to start the cook-dress-eat-melt snow ritual. At four A.M. we are ready with two liters each of warm orange juice, chocolate bars and candies. We have little climbing gear: two 9mm ropes, a few ice screws and pins. We want to go fast to make it in the day. I lead the first two pitches by headlamp on very steep and thin ice. Everything is going fine as our bodies are well tuned. Gérard then climbs a difficult section on verglas-covered rock for the third pitch. We share leads on two other mixed ice-and-snow pitches. But this has taken time, too much time! We have to hurry. I take the lead for the last 400 meters to reach the top of the face. The next pitch is a horror show, a horizontal traverse along a snow-covered arête. The snow is so fluffy that even as I sink to the armpits, I can still feel my crampons scratch the rock underneath. Finally I reach a section of good ice. We’ll make it! There are only 300 meters to go on a 75° to 85° slope. The very last section is again fluffy snow. I swim to the top of the face and sit on the heavily corniced arête, one foot on the south side, the other on the north. Soon Gérard and I face each other on the summit ridge.
We rappel and down-climb the face to get back to the bivouac by dark. We then run down the tracks on the glacier. Gérard decides to stay the night on the very first piece of rock we see. I keep on going, but a dead headlamp stops me a hundred feet short of Base Camp. I pass a wet bivouac within a stone’s throw of the Base Camp tents.
The following day we move Base Camp westward to reach Alpamayo. The story repeats itself and two days later we stand on the summit of Alpamayo after having plowed through 100 meters of deep snow and climbed 500 vertical meters of ice at 70° to 75°. In no more than four days we have done two difficult ascents: Taulliraju’s south face and Alpamayo’s southwest face. I feel we have learned the game’s rules and are ready to keep on.
Our next objective is above the Laguna Parón. Across the lake, the Pirámide de Garcilaso catches our eyes. The approach walk seems easy, the cliff itself a serious but possible undertaking. We succeed in borrowing a large inflatable raft to traverse the lake and install our tents on a fine sandy beach. Trash and remnants of a plastic shelter reveal the passage of careless “explorers.” Yet, at sunset we witness an imposing spectacle: the summits of Pirámide, Chacraraju Oeste and Artesonraju painted yellow, orange and pink. We are in Paradise!
The next day, June 27 we are back on earth, eating a freeze-dried breakfast. We pack gear for the climb and leave for the bivouac. François and Gérard will climb together, but I will put off my decision of a possible solo until we reach the very base of the climb. At seven A.M. we are at the foot of the southwest face of Pirámide. I decide to give it a try. I soon pass the bergschrund and lose the others from sight. I am now alone on this 800-meter-high face. I run up the first 150 meters of the 60° slope. I find a passage up a 20-meter-high rock band, using good footholds and jamming tool picks into cracks for balance. The slope steepens to 70° to 75° for the next 500 meters. The ice is hard, sometimes brittle. Checking watch and altimeter, I figure a steady pace of 300 meters an hour. Each half hour or so, I chop a tiny one-foot stance and take a one-minute break for water and chocolate. The gully narrows and steepens for the last 50 meters. To reach the summit, I have to dig through a snow mushroom. By 1:15 P.M. it is done. I am seated on the summit surrounded by heavy clouds.
Looking at the hole I just came up, I feel dizzy. How am I going to get down that? I take the usual pictures of the summit white-out and get ready for the descent. I carefully start to walk on the ridge between the north and south faces. After a few steps, I fall into an invisible trap. It is a crevasse going deep into the mountain. I down-climb the ice chimney till it ends. A 25-meter rappel then leads to the base of the vertical pitch. The rest is mechanical and calf-tiring down-climbing. I lose an hour trying to set up a useless rappel to pass the rock band. I finally down-climb it far to the left. I jump the bergschrund, run and slide down the glacier to reach the bivouac at sunset.
Gérard and François are already in their sleeping bags, trying to sleep. Having had too late a start, they decided to get back to the bivouac, take a rest and start anew at eleven P.M. I am too burned out fully to realize anything. Thinking will come later. I subsequently reread lines of my diary: “Solo climbing is definitely an ultimate experience, especially on a long and hard face in Peru. And nothing compares to the satisfaction following it. But you can’t share this satisfaction. … How many people have died soloing? Wouldn’t a perfect partner be as effective? Is it worth it? … I’d say yes, being ready to do it again, given the same mental preparation.”
The next day, while descending to Base Camp, I watch two tiny dots on the face. They won’t go over the rock band after many attempts. Three days later everybody is at Base Camp.
We then gladly return to Huaraz, where we feel at home. We have kept Huascarán for dessert. It will be the highest but easiest climb of the summer as we are heading for the west buttress. I leave the Garganta bivouac alone, while Gérard and François climb together. By one o’clock I am seated on the highest hump. I quickly take pictures of another white-out and run down the normal route. Back at the bivouac at five P.M., I see Gérard and François returning off the ridge. They will be back at night tired but happy. We then return to the valley, the town, civilization.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Cordillera Blanca, Peru.
Ascents: Taulliraju, 5830 meters, 19,128 feet, via South Face on June 11, 1983 (Laforest, Bourbonnais) to the summit ridge via the Italian route.
Alpamayo, 5947 meters, 19,511 feet, via Southwest Face on June 15, 1983 (Bourbonnais, Laforest).
Pirámide, 5885 meters, 19,308 feet, via Southwest Face on June 27, 1983 (Laforest).
Personnel: Jean-François Denis, Serge Dufour, Gérard Bourbonnais, Yves Laforest, François Mercier, Monique Marseille, Jocelyn Ouellet, Canadians; Michael Tupper, American.