The Riddle of the Cordillera Blanca
Who Names a Mountain?
by Antonio GÓmez BohÓrquez Translated by Bean Bowers
In July of 1985, Onofre P. García and I did a wall route in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca on a peak we knew as “La Esfinge” (The Sphinx), but which other climbers called the Torre de Parón. A French climber, Philippe Beaud, wrote about the climb three years later in his book Les Cordilleras du Perou: “An important route in the evolution of rock climbing in the Peruvian Andes… the first [on] … 100% rock—excellent granite. It is a fantastic free climb. …” Problematically, the photo that illustrates this glorious and impromptu text does not correspond to “The Sphinx” that we had climbed.
Since then, various notes about ascents of this mountain have appeared in well-known magazines, accumulating a series of errors that would confuse anyone trying to research route specifics, such as who did it, when it was done, and the many names associated with the climb. The notes I present here are an attempt to clear up the mystery about this mountain.
The Sphinx? A Story of Men And Names
In the early 1980s, a 5325-meter peak in one of the most impressive glacial cirques of Cordillera Blanca in Peru called the attention of climbers. These climbers were not drawn by the usual peaks of snow and ice typical in the Blanca, but by huge cathedral-like rock walls. This was a new paradise for rock climbers who would find large alpine crags and big walls in an exotic land that began at an altitude where the walls of Europe and North America top out.
In 1982, two andinistas, Francisco Aguado (Spain) and Américo Tordoya (Peru), decided to climb the 5325-meter peak via the large arête between its two most spectacular walls: the east and south-southeast. It all ended without a summit, and understandably so, because the andinistas, who had come in the first place to climb snow and ice peaks, had tried to implement traditional Blanca tactics to the rock walls. They were defeated by a mountain that clearly would require a new approach.
Seven Names for One Mountain?
There appeared a point on a map of the Cordillera Blanca made by the German Alpine Society in 1932 that had no notation other than an altitude of 5325 meters. This point was situated west of a mountain known as Aguja Nevada, and located above a large depression called the Quebrada de Parón (Parón Gorge).
Six years later, the same point appeared with the name Cerro Qollga (Colca) on a monograph depicting the province of Huaylas, in the north of the Cordillera Blanca. This monograph was drawn by the Provincial Association of Primary Teachers of the Huaylas province and published in Volume 7 of its magazine, Antena. It is very possible that this educational group did not climb the mountain, through which it would have established the right to give such an arbitrarily curious name.
On June 9, 1955, an early pioneering expedition of the Peruvian Andes entered the Quebrada de Parón. It was composed of the German alpinists Hermann Huber, Alfred Koch, Helmut Schmidt, and Heinz Gradl, and accompanied by porters Pedro Méndez and Guillermo Morales, who knew the country well. Throughout their march in, the expedition marveled at how Point 5325m (Cerro Colca) protruded from behind the north face of the Quebrada de Parón. They therefore labeled it as “the guardian of granite that dominates the gorge.” The high, cold, vertical beauty of the granite rampart kindled the fires of their desire to reach its summit. For all the equipment with them, however, they lacked the gear necessary for climbing the 300- to 800-meter rock walls.
The expedition arrived at the Laguna de Parón. The following day, they embarked across the lake in old inflatable rubber rafts with smaller vessels in tow, and crossed the three-and- a-half kilometers that divided them from the other bank. The wind gave them problems crossing the cold, green waters, but did not impede their travel too much and, in two days, they were fully installed in their final base camp in the most beautiful glacial cirque in the area. Huber later would write: “The next morning, we started the first attempts of the climb. Due to poor acclimatization and the heavy weight of our packs, the group suffered from ‘el soroche’ (altitude sickness), and Gradl had to quit immediately.”
Fifteen days later, they returned to the other side of the lake. They had reached summits where no one had been before, from which they had seen that the “Guardian of Granite” seemed to offer a realistic flank by which the summit could be reached. On June 26 at 6 a.m., they left in the direction of “the peak of rock yet to be explored.” They arrived at a snow col via a steep scree slope. Next, they climbed the north prow,
"… and after a not-so-easy ascent, we reached the summit at 5:30 p.m. We began our descent in the darkening night without moonlight. We traversed steep moraines, and worked our way through the cliffbands. After 19 uninterrupted hours of work, we arrived happily at the tents to be warmly welcomed by the porters who had stayed behind.”
This excerpt corresponds to the route information that Huber wrote in a series of climbing publications, in which the “Guardian of Granite” received the name “Cerro Parón.”
Nine years after the 1955 climb, Evelio Echevarría, a Chilean climber residing in Colorado, and a great student of andinismo, wrote to Huber asking him for information. This is what Huber answered from Grenoble, France: “June 26, 1955, Cerro Parón, 5325 meters (the farthest west of the high spires), Koch, Schmidt, and Huber; we believe [ours was] the second ascent.” But, in that letter, Huber did not reveal what led him to believe that theirs was the second ascent. (Only later was it revealed that the reason they figured they were the second ascent was a cairn of two rocks 100 meters below the summit. If these were placed by a previous party, it begs the question of who they were. These rocks could just as easily have been there naturally, which is common in the Cordillera Blanca.) The Germans were not aware of the peak’s name as Cerro Colca; after climbing it, they called it Cerro Parón. Little did they realize that, 30 years later, this peak would be the jumping-off point for a new approach to climbing in the Cordillera Blanca.
In 1977, a book entitled Yuraq Janka came out, written by a climber-geologist named John F. Ricker. In his text on page 72, Ricker recognizes the German ascent as the first. There also appears the reference to “Cerro Kqolca”(Qollga), a.k.a. Colca, that according to Ricker is in the Quechuan language, “the space below the eaves of the tiled roof.”
According to Echevarría, “colca” means “grain silo” in the Quechuan. Thus, the peak probably could take on the form of a Quechuan grain silo. The name Cerro Parón probably was intended to be Cerro Marrón (Marrón, Castillian for maroon, being easily misinterpreted by the Germans as Parrón, and substituting the double “rr” of the Castillian language with the single “r,” as in German there is little distinction between the two).*
In 1982, Francisco Aguado and Américo Tordoya (known as Penike to his friends) gave the peak yet another name after their attempt of the east ridge. (Sadly, Penike later disappeared in the Chilean Andes.) They called it the Aguja Nevada (Snowy Needle), and the neighboring peaks from then on were known as Nevados Aguja. Some months later, in the Spanish magazine Desnivel, reports of their attempt on the mountain gave it the name of Torre Aguja.
At the beginning of August 1982,I arrived in Huaraz, the jumping-off point for trips into the Blanca. In Huaraz, Aguado and Penike told me of their recent attempt on a mountain they believed to be called Aguja Nevada. At that point, my objective was to climb some peaks, and for that I went to the Parón Gorge.
For many kilometers prior to entering the gorge, I could not take my eyes off a certain rock obelisk to the right of the pass we were traveling. As we crested the pass, my eyes peered through the dust to quite a scene: There was yet another mountain of even larger dimensions that jutted out from behind the left wall, seemingly piercing the clouds like the point of an arrow. At that moment, I became aware that to climb the steep wall in front of me, I would have to adopt the mentality of a pure rock climber, a concept different from traditional tactics in the Blanca. From views I got while on surrounding peaks, I was able to get an idea of how to climb that enormous rock. When I came home to Spain, I promised myself I would return to climb it.
The following year, I traveled back to Peru with Jesús Gálvez, one of the best Spanish rock climbers at the time, but our objective was the northeast face of Nevado Huandoy. From its base, we could see, seemingly at our fingertips, the far-away “needle of granite” that was reminiscent of an Egyptian sphinx. My partner drew it in his notebook and noted its name as “La Esfinge” (The Sphinx), and we began to refer to it as such to differentiate it from the neighboring Nevados Aguja peaks, which were far too similar to Aguja Nevada and Agujas Nevadas. We said we would return to climb it the following year; but due to a spinal injury to myself and a frostbite injury Jesus received in the French Alps, we did not return.
In 1985,1 prepared to return to The Sphinx with Onofre Garcia, a regular climbing partner of mine. It seemed smarter to us to climb the east face because it offered quicker possibilities and less time in the shade. Rigoberto Angeles from Huaraz helped us transport our gear to a base camp about an hour from the wall. Next, we prepared ourselves for an ascent, not to return to the ground until after we reached the summit.
Differing from all other previous climbs in the Blanca, we used only rock gear, employed pure rock technique, and did not carry heavy boots for snow or ice (a decision we regretted on the ninth and final night on the climb because of a snow and ice storm).
The following morning, on July 8, at 10:45 a.m., we reached the snow-covered summit. As we descended the next day, we could see the southeast face, taller and colder than the wall we had just climbed; we decided at that point that we were in for another adventure on that aspect the next year. On returning to Laguna de Parón, we asked our porter what name the locals gave to the mountain we had climbed, and he said they only knew it as La Roca (The Rock). In Huaraz, a few climbers who questioned us about the Sphinx referred to it as La Torre de Parón, perhaps without even knowing that others had been referring to it as such as it is the obvious granite obelisk in the center of the gorge.*
The following year I could not return to the Blanca due to a hurt shoulder and second- degree frostbite to my feet.
Four Madrid climbers—Eduardo de la Cal, Chema Polanco, Alejandro Madrid, and Manuel Olivera—climbed the Sphinx in 1987. They divided into two rope teams; one party would climb ahead while the others jugged lines and hauled food and water. During the first ten days, they climbed during the day and returned to the base to sleep at night. When they reached the large ledges on the wall, they decided to go for it without descending to the base, but due to the horrendous weather they had to abandon their attempt. Fourteen days later, three of them returned to the mountain to continue their climb, and on August 18, they reached the summit via the same route that Aguado and Penike had tried five years earlier. The four climbers referred to the formation afterward as the Sphinx or the Torre de Parón.
In June, 1988, the southeast face remained unclimbed, and my injuries had almost completely healed. To see if my feet would handle the cold nature of that wall, where the sun seems never to shine, and to see if my shoulder could resist the continual force of the vertical world, I left for Peru.
I completed climbs of four peaks in the Blanca with two Basque friends who, upon arriving in Peru, introduced me to a few climbers of their homeland. One of the men I met, Iñaki San Vicente, was at the time a strong climber who was doing many rapid solo ascents and was looking to do some climbing before going to the rock towers of Argentine Patagonia three months later.
Onofre García arrived at the beginning of June, and as we had planned in Spain, the two of us departed for the wall that we had promised ourselves three years earlier we would climb. After climbing the first 60 meters and returning to the ground to continue climbing the fol
lowing day, García accidentally slipped and took a tumble down a snow and ice slope, and after gathering himself up figured it was time to give up on that mountain range.
A few days after that, while in Huaraz, I ran into Iñake who took me up on my invitation to go finish the route I had just begun. During the first four days, we climbed during the day, then descended to sleep at our camp below the east buttress. Next, we hauled a portaledge to our high point, along with all the other accoutrements we would need for ten days, with the objective of not descending until after reaching the summit. But, after climbing and sleeping three consecutive nights on the wall, we had to descend to Huaraz. We returned a week later, better stocked and better prepared. After getting back on the wall, we spent 12 consecutive nights until finally, on August 14, at 10:50 a.m., we reached the top of this peak with several names that represents a new kind of climbing in the Cordillera Blanca: pure rock.
La Esfinge? La Roca? La Torre del Parón? Torre Aguja? La Aguja Nevada? El Cerro de Parón? El Cerro Colca? Above all, we need to now give this mountain a name that will stick and put an end to confusion. What needs defining here is, who names a mountain? Until that is answered, there remains the riddle of the Cordillera Blanca.
Editor’s note: Based on Bohórquez’s research and a studied nod from Dr. Echevarría, The American Alpine Journal will herein refer to Pt. 5325m as La Esfinge, a.k.a. The Sphinx. We will also agree to the suggestions by the two scholars that the unclimbed pillar in the same massif be referred to as La Torre de Parón. Our best to those who next enjoy the Blanca’s finest granite.
*Evelio Echevarría writes: “[In the] Parón vs. Parrón [debate,]…Parón is correct. The Austrian-German map of 1932 listed the valley as Parrón (Spanish: grapevine). But [AAJ Editor 1960-1995] Ad Carter, who traveled a lot in the Cordillera Blanca, introduced the corrected word as it is accepted today: Parón (from the local Quechua, paru, meaning maroon).”
*According to Bohórquez, the Sphinx is completely different from the true Torre de Parón, a photo of which appears on page 171. Because both peaks have the same shape and are located in the same massif, the mistake is a reasonable one, but everything in this article refers to the Sphinx, not the Torre. Dr. Echevarría adds that the true Torre de Parón, located on the southern side of the Quebrada (valley) de Parón, is perhaps also called Cerro Torohuacra (4805 m).