The first ascent of a huge ice wall in the Cordillera Huayhuash of Peru.
Outside in the urban night it is snowing. The cold wind howls intensely off the port. After dinner, without the help of either drink or smoke, our conversation wanders, ideas going in all directions, minds expanding. Enveloped in the aroma of the café, Manel de la Matta brings up his old idea for a journey across the sea for six months—at last he is to realize it. As if revealing a map to some long-lost treasure, he hands around a photograph of the west face of Siulá Chico.
Years later, I carry out my own dream of crossing the ocean to Siulá Chico, the first of three trips to this mountain. Following in the footsteps of the conquistadors, we arrive in the land of El Dorado. Here the locals cast dark glances at us (or so we imagine), their weapons glinting in the night. In any foreign land, how are we to know our friends from our enemies? Then again, do we even know this at home?
We encounter a tavern where we seek information: El Vagamundo. Nearly ensnared by the pungent fumes of pisco and the alcoholic confusion of the bartender, we are saved by a charming waitress who directs us to the guesthouse of a friend. Here we find ourselves among other treasure hunters, and in no time we are able to negotiate some muleteers who will take us from the city at dawn, toward the mountain. On the trail we ponder what drove the conquistadors, in their shining suits of iron, to push on across this high plain, beneath a punishing sun, with nothing but snowy peaks on the horizon. Perhaps they were simply seeking the most distant place imaginable? Perhaps we are continually doing the same thing?
May 2007, Cutatambo. Two families living in shacks of corrugated tin receive us warmly, inviting us in for the local staple of cheese and potatoes. We decide to camp beneath the open mouth of the abandoned lead and silver mine of San Martín, named for the general who liberated much of Latin America from the oppressive colonial rule of the Spanish. We pitch our tent among some more recent ruins, dating to when the glacial lake beneath Nevado Sarapo was drained in order to avoid the possibility of a catastrophic flood, like the ones that have devastated entire villages in the adjoining Cordillera Blanca. These mountains are alive, or at least more alive than our own lands. Once in awhile they convulse, hurling on the valley below everything they can shake loose. In the moraine we play gold prospectors, collecting brilliant rocks to bring back home.
We spend several days carrying loads along the dusty trail of the lateral moraine called Bomb Alley by Joe Simpson after his epic on Siulá Grande, and through the stony moraine where Simpson somehow crawled his way back to life to the tune of that horrid song—a brown girl in the ring, tra la la la la. No science can tell us where that fine thread hangs between living and letting go. Finally we are in position to attempt the ascent of the west face of Siulá Chico, called “the little one” because it is just a bit lower than Siulá Grande, but by no means because it is small.
On May 20 we leave base camp in splendid weather. On this attempt—my third on the face in five years—Oriol Baró accompanies me. Oriol is 20 years younger than me, but he shares my goals and ethics in the climbing realm, demonstrating that the basic essence of alpinism endures through the years despite all the excuses that we look for to climb mountains in other ways.
Early the next morning we access the Siulá Glacier. Although not large, the glacier begins as a labyrinth and soon becomes heavily crevassed, with enormous holes lurking. We would move closer to the base of Siulá Grande, but we shy away from it because every so often a piece of cornice breaks loose and sweeps down the gullies of the face, tumbling out onto the glacier we are crossing.
We pitch the tent in a flat spot that doesn’t appear too exposed, just far enough away, we hope, from the crevasses and avalanches. While we climb, we’ll leave our small home of yellow nylon standing, hoping that from the wall it will offer the illusion that amid this vast cirque of mountains—Yerupaja, the Siulás, and Sarapo—we are not alone.
The imposing west face of Siulá Chico is hidden by the fame of Siulá Grande, and this is what has protected it until now from the ravenous view of almost all other alpinists. Even though it does not yet have a route on it, in Huaraz they joke that I’m opening a sport climbing area on its flanks because I’ve returned so many times. In 2003 Jordi Tosas and I were completely mistaken in our tactics on the mountain. On that occasion we attempted a line of frozen waterfalls on the left side of the wall, linked by a pitch of aid on horrible rock. The aid climbing required us to back-clean our pitons in order to stretch our gear for use higher up. We both remember this line having the most difficult ice climbing either of us had ever done. We completed around 600 meters of the route up to a shoulder. There, weak from both physical and psychological fatigue, we had to retreat.
The problem was that we hadn’t known how to read the wall. Once committed to it, there are no ledges where one can sleep, and everything is more vertical than it appears from below. Even the fields of snow turned out to be sheets of ice where we couldn’t fashion any platform. That first attempt, we bivouacked coiled up among the stalactites of ice behind frozen cascades. Since then, we’ve carried a hammock and haul bag, so that at least we could sleep.
The west face is guarded halfway up by a long row of giant snow mushrooms. After midday, the sun hits this part of the wall and the apus; as the locals call the mountain spirits, begin to play, aiming their lances of ice at the impudent humans that have dared to enter their domain. For this reason, it is necessary to find a protected spot by noon to wait out the bombardment.
In 2007, as we did in 2005, we start the route in the center of the wall, following a series of steepening icefields under some overhangs that offer a bit of protection from above— a good thing since as soon as we pass the bergschrund there is a small avalanche of ice. Beyond the overhang, two short pitches of either aid or mixed climbing—the manner of passage depending on the condition of the snow and the efforts that one can muster—lead to a bivy site exposed to everything that falls. Just above this, a long traverse across thin ice leads toward the right side of the wall, making for quite a challenge in dealing with the haul bag. Our attempt in 2005 ended after a bad blow from a fall on this traverse. This time we finish the traverse just a bit bruised from the falling projectiles.
At our second bivouac we spend two nights. The weather has changed, and it snows constantly through the night and during the following day. The vertical nature of the wall keeps the snow from accumulating, and we endure constant washing by spindrift but no big avalanches. We try to doze as much as possible to avoid eating. While climbing you don’t think so much of food, but trapped here for an entire day we end up seeing barbequed chickens circling around our heads.
Oriol wonders aloud what the Brits must be made from that allowed them to endure a sitting bivouac on this wall’s tiny, exposed ledges. [Mick Fowler and Simon Yates attempted the left side of the west face in 1998, climbing 10 pitches over two days before retreating in the face of rock and ice fall.] At least the canopy of our hammock protects us somewhat from the spindrift. Later in the season, on Huascarán Sur, we will test what Oriol calls the “Fowler style” of bivouacs, but that is another story. For the rest of the climb the weather remains unsettled, with clouds rolling in each afternoon and dumping a bit of snow. During our final bivouac, on our way down, we’ll have an electric party to celebrate our summit, replete with thundering drums.
From the central snowfield, we pick our way up a line of gullies, waterfalls, and sheets of thin and poorly protected ice. What slows us down most is building belay anchors. The rock is compact limestone with few cracks, the ice is often too soft or too thin, and we place no bolts on the face. Even after finishing our strange and extensive triangulations, which are far from “by the book,” we pray to the apus that the leader will find a good piece as quickly as possible. I tell Oriol after one pitch, “I thought about untying because I knew that if you fell the belay would fail. But after thinking it over I realized that that would only leave me alone in this place without a rope. So I kept belaying but stopped watching.”
After a number of pitches of authentic north face-style alpinism, we arrive on a shoulder of sugary meringue, where finally we can scratch out a ledge big enough for us both to stand flat-footed and dance on top of the clouds.
From here we cross to the other side of the mountain, via a kind of “Traverse of the Gods,” with the void sucking at our heels. This leads to another pitch of excellent thin ice, and finally we reach the vertical flutings of unconsolidated snow for which these mountains are infamous, with only two pickets to help us overcome our fears. Luckily the ropes are long and the simul-climbing is brief, and we find a smear of ice for anchoring ourselves.
And the summit? A mound of soft snow, fog, cornices, and a mountain that drops to the other side; this is not a summit so much as a story that has just finished. All this means is that another story begins, and that the infernal cycle of stories will continue so long as we have strength.
Area: Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru
Ascents: First ascent of the west face of 6,265-meter Siulá Chico (900m, ED+ VI AI5+ A2) by Oriol Baró and Jordi Corominas, May 2007. The two men carried a portaledge and haul bag, and they bivouacked five times during the ascent and once during the descent. They used no bolts. After this climb, Baró and Corominas completed a new route on the northeast face of Huascarán Sur, and Baró, Corominas, and Enrique Muñoz climbed a new route on the south face of Nevado Copa. Details of these climbs in the Cordillera Blanca are found in the Climbs and Expeditions section.
A Note About the Author:
Jordi Corominas was born in Barcelona in 1958, and lives in Benasque, a small town in the Pyrenees. He works as a mountain guide.
Translated from the Spanish by Adam French, with additional translation by Molly Loomis and Bean Bowers.