American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Pumasillo and Mellizos, Cordillera Vilcabamba

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1988

Pumasillo and Mellizos, Cordillera Vilcabamba

Carlos Buhler

THE STEAMING JUNGLES of southeastern Peru seem a strange place to begin an exploration of the northeastern side of the Pumasillo massif. Hidden from all but the most remote mountain trails, the Pumasillo group is comprised of a jagged spine of peaks in the eastern Cordillera Vilcabamba. This seldom visited chain is chock full of Incan history. Incredible Incan highways of stone and stairways wind through the heavily vegetated valleys and passes. Pumasillo lies not more than 25 air miles from the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Paul Harris, an English climber I had met in Washington State, joined me in Cuzco a week earlier. From a few sparse maps and a satellite photo, we concluded that a two-or three-day walk would put us in a position to climb from the northeast side. Hoping to meet our arriero Washington Delgado early in the morning, we caught the last train from Cuzco to Santa Teresa.

Unfortunately, there is not space here to tell of our arrival in the ramshackle tiny jungle town at two A.M. and our finding the unmarked “hotel.” The next day went smoothly. We met Washington Delgado and his assistant Ricardo as planned. Our food and gear arrived by freight car at eleven A.M. We loaded our supplies onto six burros and began the hike into the mountains.

Over the next three days, we walked and rode through a remarkable variety of ecological zones. Beginning with the montaña jungle, we traveled up into alpine grasslands. On the first day we were delighted to see tree branches in the dense vegetation bending under the weight of swinging monkeys. Occasionally, the children of the tiny settlements along the way followed us for kilometers, offering us fruit and laughter to bolster us along. Even Washington had not been far enough up the valley to see the snowy peaks above the grazing grounds.

Bamboo and broadleaf plants gave way to thick forest. We repeatedly crossed the Sacsara River as it plunged from its glacial origins at 5000 meters down to 1500 meters, where we had begun at its junction with the Urubamba. So steep was the trail that we were hard pressed to find a flat piece of ground for our tent on the first night. Our second day took us out of the jungle. We glanced skyward to check the enormous ridges that flanked our gorge, their slopes deep in vegetation. Yet, by five P.M. on our second day, we were camped at the upper end of the beautiful Sacsara valley. Heavy clouds obscured any view we might have had of the nearly 6000-meter peaks we knew were above us. The valley split and both forks abruptly climbed to glaciers we could just see beneath the rolling mists. The next morning we ascended the more northerly of the two quebradas. Paul and I walked ahead to search for a Base Camp site while Washington and Ricardo followed with the pack animals.

A couple of hours higher, we came to a flat terrace of dry glacial silt in the center of an enormous amphitheater of soaring peaks. On top of 500-foot rock walls were perched the huge séracs of Pumasillo’s east glacier. That afternoon we climbed the moraine to get an idea of the layout of the peaks. One peak had stood out in the early morning clearing. Its upper eastern walls resembled the petals of a blossoming flower. The deep flutings of ice opened like a Japanese paper fan above an inaccessible hanging glacier high on the face. We assumed it had to be the famous Pumasillo itself—the Claw of the Puma. There were other impressive peaks around, but this one caught our imagination. With only nine days to climb, we agreed that if the weather improved, it should be our first objective.

Luck was on our side. The following nine days gave us steadily improving weather. The next day we set off on a conditioning ascent up the lower portion of a long rock-and-snow ridge. Our first day’s climb in the fog took us up an impressive knife-edged ridge. During the occasional breaks in the mist we gained a better understanding of the cirque we were in.

With Pumasillo still first on our list, the next day Washington helped us carry our gear to an easy breakover point on the ridge we had climbed the day before. We chose a line up the southeast face which led to the 20-meter sérac barrier of the hanging glacier in the face’s center. If we could climb this and get into the bowl, we could climb the fluted face above.

We began the next day at 3:30 A.M. At the outset, the snow was calf-deep. Our concern with avalanches became eclipsed by the uncertainty of immense snow bridges we had to cross in the dark. We reached the sérac wall with the sun. Something obviously did not jibe. The peak behind us, which had appeared smaller from Base Camp, now loomed far larger than the one we were on. We were not climbing Pumasillo; that was the great mountain over our shoulder. We were on Mellizos, a 5700-meter peak to the north.

We surmounted the sérac in two short, exciting pitches. Unfortunately, this put us on the edge of a heart-breaking crevasse, which cut a clean slice of the hanging glacier away from the icefield behind it. We nearly had to admit defeat. With a surge of determination, I led out on a paper-thin leaf of ice that partially bridged the five-meter gap. With some scary moves, I managed to climb part way down the crevasse and back out the far side. Now our way was clear to the ice flutings above.

The upper face consisted of 300 meters of enjoyable ice runnels and snow mushrooms, varying in steepness from 50° to 75°. Fifteen meters from the ridge crest, Paul spotted a natural tunnel. As I ducked through, I felt a moment of terror at the thought of the many tons of ice that would squash me if it should come collapsing down. We had less than 100 meters to go up the east ridge to the summit. The last forty meters were a summit block of rotten ice guarded by a ten-meter overhang of collapsible crud. Paul graciously belayed me up the final pitch, noting that the ridge was so narrow and unstable that he could see clear through it in places. Paul logically declined to do the final pitch. Finding a rock wall that barred access to the south ridge for the descent, we decided on the low-angled but crevassed northeast snow slopes in order to drop back to our glacial basin from the southeast ridge. Having made only one rappel, we were back at our tent by five P.M. A quick look at our lack of food convinced us to trudge back over the break in the ridge. We reached Base Camp at 7:30 exhausted. Washington and Ricardo had read our minds. Fresh lamb stew was waiting. We wolfed it down like children eating birthday cake.

After a rest day, we had to come to grips with the nagging reality that we had not climbed Pumasillo. With four days left, we admitted that the next project had to be the Claw itself. We chose a route on the ice face which lies just to the right (north) of the highest point. We packed four days of food and fuel plus a light bivouac tent. It took us a long day and a half to climb the complex glacier which protects the east face. We made better time by ascending the south side of Pumasillo’s east glacier. We could see that once we were up closer, we could traverse back north. That first afternoon we gained about 650 meters. We slept at 5200 meters on a safe spot on the glacier. The next day we moved up and right across slopes covered with deep snow. There was some debris that had come down, but in general the slopes offered the line of least resistance.

We pitched our tent beneath a sérac tucked up under the 55° final ice slopes of the east face at 5500 meters. Since the upper grooves in the face were clearly scoured by falling rock and ice during the heat of the day, the only safe time to climb them would be at night. Our second day had been short and so we could rehydrate fully and begin climbing long before the sun rose on the third day. Hoping to descend the normal west flank and walk back around, we carried all our gear with us. By the time the sun rose we were well past the frightening pock marks and nearing the top of the face. The climbing was entirely on ice and snow and we made excellent time by climbing together on all but the last 500 feet to the ridge. The weather could not have been better.

At 7:30 we reached the ridge crest. It was then only another twenty minutes of easy cramponing up the north ridge to the summit. Our descent was more difficult. Immediately upon attempting to drop down the west ridge, Paul took a scary eight-meter fall when a snow ledge gave way under him. I had ten tense minutes of doubt holding a taut rope until I could feel his movements as he struggled to climb back onto the ridge. He emerged unhurt but shaken. Considering our lack of equipment for rappelling, we decided to descend the unclimbed north ridge.

All day we climbed down the north ridge. Rotten ice and gaping crevasses prevented quick progress. Chiseling bollards for anchors, we made two fifty-foot abseils down overhanging ice walls. By the day’s end we had reached a col on the ridge at 5600 meters. A heavily corniced horizontal section would stop us on the ridge. In the last light we climbed out to a prominent bump on the ridge. Looking back from there, we spotted a possible descent down the eastern slopes which would take us back to the upper east glacier. We had used up our food and were afraid of getting caught in the complex glacier and being forced to backtrack.

After a restless night, we were up and moving on the fourth day. Fortunately, the pieces fitted together. Our descent over some risky sérac avalanche debris connected with the glacier after only one short rappel off a snow stake. We traversed south underneath the ice face we had climbed and eventually found our tracks coming up from the first night’s camp. At three P.M. we stepped off the glacier thirty minutes above Base Camp. As we removed our crampons, we were elated to see Ricardo bounding up toward us. He greeted us with a heart-warming hug and explained how they had watched our every move with binoculars. On the last slopes, Paul and I shared the luxury of letting Ricardo take turns carrying our packs. With Pumasillo climbed, one of my long-standing dreams had come true.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Cordillera Vilcabamba, Peru.

New Routes: Mellizos, 5700 meters, 18,701 feet, via Southeast Face, August 23 and 24, 1987 (Carlos Buhler, Paul Harris).

Pumasillo, 5996 meters, 19,673 feet, via East Face, August 26 to 29, 1987 (Buhler, Harris).

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