A Calling: Cayesh

Peru, Cordillera Blanca
Author: Jerry Gore. Climb Year: 1986. Publication Year: 1987.

NEVADO CAYESH IS a pinnacle in the Peruvian Andes. The name itself is derived from the Quechua word caye, meaning “to call,” and indeed for me it did just that. Described by John Ricker as “possibly the most spectacular peak in the Cordillera Blanca,” I first saw a shot of the mountain whilst leafing through his guidebook to the range. I became captivated and decided to make it the basis of a climbing documentary film for the BBC’s Mick Burke Award.

Cayesh had had only two full ascents. Both of these would have easily qualified for the title “Epic.” The first ascent, in 1960, involved a truly horrendous climb by three intrepid New Zealanders along the peak’s overhung, corniced and heavily mushroomed south ridge. The second ascent took place in 1984, with a superbly technical and serious route up the east face by Mark Richey and two friends. The crux of the five-day horror-show was centred around tiers of ice ceilings projecting out horizontally thirty feet, at mid height on the face. The suspended icicles which decorated these tiers were surmounted amidst graphic details of axe hooking on pockets with icicle tie-offs for protection!

The whole of the northwest face lay untouched and was quite clearly up for grabs. In 1985, I decided to keep the idea in mind but make a final decision when we got there. As usual the conditions on the hill dictated events. Our film team reached Base Camp at the bottom of Cayesh around early June, 1985. We soon realised that the face was still badly choked with early season snowfall. Since it would take at least two weeks to clear, we went for the unclimbed west face of Milpocraju and filmed it in its entirety. By the time we had returned to Cayesh, the weather had come in again. We initiated two major assaults but were soundly repulsed both times. That was the conclusion of events for 1985.

The long trudge up the glacier in early July of 1986 is endurable. We had left gear for the wall climb four days before and our packs are light for the first time in a week. Terry Moore is obviously well rid of the dysentery that has been troubling him and he storms ahead, the old glacial rhythm well established. I stumble on behind, trying deperately to find mine, but to no avail.

We reach the bergschrund at the foot of the face by early afternoon, time enough to fix the first pitches across the gap and up to the first rognon. This will allow us access to the ice couloir and the start of the real difficulties. We are well pleased with our work and retire to our palatial bivy tent, floating amidst a sea of whiteness in a hollow curving from the baked névé. The hardened snow is testimony to the appalling fact that the Blanca has recently come through five weeks of perfect weather. We have missed it all and know only too well that time is not on our side. It will surely break up soon. The sunsets each night play mercilessly with our fantasies. We brew and drink mechanically. Each is lost in his own private world and the discussion remains short and clipped until our bivy sack finally enshrouds us, together with our worries.

In the first full day on the face, we reach the col after six hours’ struggle. I find a good ledge, protected from the icicles above by an overhang and we prepare for the night. The drinks, a mixture of Duocal Carbohydrate and rehydrated baby food is passed back and forth and we slowly regain the valuable fluid lost during the day.

I begin to think about tomorrow and what it might bring. We should reach, or get close enough to, last year’s high point to determine whether or not the rock will go. I am convinced there is a line there somewhere, and have gambled this whole saga on that lone hope. Have I only been deceiving myself? I look across at Terry and grin. He is immersed in his own thoughts and ignores me totally. I hope for his sake I am right.

Day three arrives. We leave our little nest like vermin scurrying from the lair, and furtively stalk our prey. Long pitches are run out to the left, across the face, over very steep, mixed ground. The high point is reached finally, and dismay quickly replaces expected hope. There is no sense here and we recover our steps. Back to square one. I have no choice but to go for our only other option, a vague line of weakness above the bivy site, and one that we think will penetrate the rock band.

I shoulder my rucksack and begin work on the shattered dyke that splits the roof over 200 feet above me. Almost immediately I am spat out like some unwanted, indigestible scrap, and I lie sprawling at Terry’s feet. The sack is ditched, and I reascend.

The first pitch goes well enough, with some aiding to start, followed by wide bridging up fairly solid rock with good protection. Terry jümars up, and I begin again. This time the problems are more intricate. A tension balance across the face of a giant block leads me to the bottom of another vertical crack system, which splits the main overhang in the band. We anticipate that this will be the crux. Above, it will be possible to gain access to the huge amphitheatre in the middle of the face. From reconnaissance shots taken on early New Zealand attempts we can identify a series of ice ramps that appear to lead up to the top sérac barrier. Although extremely steep, this “staircase” of ice seems a key element in the jig-saw of pieces needed to complete the picture. Above this, however, is No-Man’s Land. Whether we encounter those same tiers of ice ceilings that Richey so vividly described, is impossible to ascertain. It would definitely be a case of suck it and see!

From below the roof I look up at a large block of suspended icicles, one of the many that litter the face. The simplicity of the analogy suddenly strikes me and I move off quickly. The crack yields begrudgingly until I am back to face- climbing on small incuts. The line leads up to a little niche between a large overhang on my left and a further crack system up to my right. I rest awkwardly, feeling the strain slowly build and the long run-out beginning to affect me. I place a small knife-blade and tension once more across the rock. Fifteen feet of toeing and I am across. The ground suddenly eases and I become immersed in a sort of open chimney. Relief floods in as I make safe and prepare for the abseil. Darkness stops play. It is a useful excuse because I am really knackered anyway. We scuttle back to last night’s lair, pleased with our work.

Day four is unzipped to reveal the usual concoction of mist, cold and wind. It is Terry’s turn to cook, so it’s an evil chuckle and back into the pit, rápido ! A late, late start and a series of long exhausting hauls sees us ensconced in the chimney, yesterday’s highpoint.

Terry leads out a couple of fine pitches. We are in the amphitheatre, gaping at the amazing Gothic architecture that surrounds us. Huge walls of rock lie suspended, interspersed with graceful arches and columns of ice. Bach would definitely have had a field day up here, if he could only work out the organ arrangements!

Out to the left, a traverse across rock slabs leads to easy ground and a beautiful sight. The start of the ice ramps is right around the comer, guaranteeing further progress. A gift from heaven, and not the last on this route by any means. Terry miraculously finds a tiny ledge big enough for two bums, and we set up shop once more. Ropes fixed, gear racked and hung, bodies tied off and we’re in and sitting pretty. I relax for the first time that day. The exposure and general situation makes for a fantastic bivy, more like front-row seats at the Albert Hall. We sit captivitated as the theatre of light and colour happens before us. Sunset yields hope, but the cold and blackness take its place, and we soon tire of the entertainment. Cracked hands and faces are encased in folds of fibre pile, and the night wears on, the ritual pattern of restlessness, shifting and shivering enacted to the full.

Summit Day, and we are up early for a change. I begin work on the ramp straight away, equipped only for ice, no sack, just a small one for the second. We lead out pitch after pitch of perfect 70°-85° green ice. Eventually I come up against a short rock wall, behind which the dreaded ice ceilings dramatically appear. A veritable “Creag-y-Rhaeadr” at 18,000 feet, but without the Vaynol Arms lurking beneath.

Terry joins me at the stance and we decide on a plan of action. The first option is tried, and quickly terminated as I retreat very carefully from a thin snow bridge, giving a brief glimpse of the North Face—horrendous! No way, no how! Option two is less threatening; in fact it’s nothing short of sheer bloody genius. After carefully searching the morasse of icicles and séracs that now confront us, Terry has managed to discern a route up, and through, the barrier itself. He points it out, and I begin to trace his route over the ground. Hope flickers again and I set off.

The first problem is a shattered rock band, either side of which lie thick ice flows. The rock is verglased, but at a fairly easy angle. Grivels are whipped off at the edge, and I climb very slowly across on sloping holds, desperately regretting our decision to leave the rock gear behind. The pitch ends abruptly at the start of a honeycombed wall of ice, and the start of our journey through the séracs. Although initially low-angled, the ice rises up at me, and then strangely leads off and around a window of ice, ending in two very nice tied-off screws. The first good protection for some time, and with it comes the realisation that I am now on the summit snowfields.

I am surrounded by fantastic ice formations, but by the time Terry has joined me I can see the route ahead, and feel the certainty of success rising within. He leads through and races for the top. The sensation at the summit is too much and I sink to my knees—three years’ ambition fulfilled.

The abseils back through the ice ramps are lengthy and expensive, as we gaily kiss goodbye to drilled stakes and titanium screws. We reach the start of the ramps by early evening and resolve to spend another night on the face. The wind that had continually plagued us each evening is strangely absent. We enjoy an hour’s relaxation, sitting above the sea of cloud which lies lapping at the face 1000 feet below. Ambition has been halted, if only temporarily, and a sense of real contentment seeps in. Day becomes night once more. All sound has gone and some words from another world come slowly to mind:

Love silence, even in the mind …

True silence is the rest of the mind; and is to the spirit, what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.

—William Penn

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Cordillera Blanca, Peru.

New Route: Nevado Cayesh, 5721 meters, 18,770 feet, via the Northwest Face; Fourth Ascent of the Peak; July 8 to 13, 1986 (Jerry M. Gore, Terry Moore).