About 6 months ago, Dale sent me a picture of Alpamayo and said we should go climbing in Peru. I didn't need much convincing. On June 2nd, we left home, headed for an adventure in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere's winter at high altitude.
The 8-hour bus ride to Huaraz from Lima nearly did me in with motion sickness, but thankfully we'd planned on 2-3 days in town to acclimatize and gear up before trying our first adventure. We planned the trip without a guide, so all of the logistics were on us and it turned out there was more to figure out than we were used to. The biggest debate was whether or not to hire a donkey driver and burros from Cashapampa 14 miles up to the 14,000 ft base camp. We eventually decided to follow this pretty standard practice, but it involved finding food and shelter for our friend. We also needed to figure out available food for breakfasts and lunches as well as how much we'd need for our adventure—it felt like a mini expedition planning session.
On the morning of June 6th, we were ready to roll and hopped in a collectivo from Huaraz to Caraz, then took a tuk tuk to another collectivo from Caraz to Cashapampa. It was a beautiful drive up the side of the valley with some serious drop offs. In Cashapampa, we inquired about a donkey driver and quickly found one willing to head up with us. Amador was an awesome guy in his mid-forties with a power belly. After strapping our gear to the burros, we headed up the classic Santa Cruz valley.
Our first day brought us up from 10k ft to about 12k and a beautiful campsite looking further up the valley. We rested up there and then finished the approach to base camp the next day. Needless to say, we were happy with our decision to have hired burros—14 miles and 4,000 ft would have taken it out of us with ~65lb packs as we tried to acclimatize.
We spent a day at base camp and then planned to make it to the glacier camp in a push, but started to feel sick as we headed up the moraine. It was nothing having to do with the altitude—it was a stomach bug of some kind, perhaps from food or water in Huaraz or on the approach. We felt ok slowing down since reports suggested our secondary objective from the glacier camp, Quitaraju, was not in great condition and not worth pursuing. We tried to rest up at moraine camp and then packed up for glacier camp the next morning.
The approach to glacier camp is no joke. It's only about 2,000 ft of vertical, but it winds up a broken glacier before climbing a short, decently steep section of serac ice and then a couple pitches of moderately steep snow. With a heavy multi-night pack, it certainly felt like a workout. We were pretty happy to set up camp on the glacier at 18,000 ft, especially considering our health, which was deteriorating. Our original plan was to head up for Alpamayo the next morning, but we spent a sleepless night making periodic trips to the loo to let out the hate from all angles, so we spent the next day trying to recuperate instead. And we repeated this again the next night and day as well. Between the altitude appetite suppression, being sick, and evacuating any calories we put in, it didn't feel like we'd really eaten much in 3 days.
At this point, we were running up against the date we'd asked Amador to meet us at base camp to haul our gear back out, so we sent some soles and a message down with our friend Mark that we were going to wait one more day before heading down. We were feeling slightly better and were hopeful that we'd sleep well and be ok on the climb. It was clearly steep and technical, but was oh-so-close to camp and not that difficult in the grand scheme of the climbing we've done. We also got an inspiring sunset view of the mountain before heading to bed that night.
Unfortunately, I don't think either of us slept much that night and the GI issues continued. We woke up at 1am and decided to give it a shot, knowing we could rap off at any anchor along the way. There was a party of two ahead of us that morning and we followed their tracks up to the bergschrund in the darkness. After a pitch and a half, they abruptly bailed, pushing spindrift into us in volume and making us wait for an hour or more as they dug out an anchor and got off the route—not the best way to start and unfortunately a good recipe for my fingers and toes to start getting cold, especially in my dehydrated, hypoglycemic state.
We forged ahead, making it up another couple pitches before an Italian party of 3 came up behind us intent on passing. A pitch of climbing next to each other with ropes, snow, and ice everywhere was not great, so we decided to wait at the next belay and let them go past us. This unfortunately meant more time standing around in the cold and my feet were starting to feel like blocks of ice. I tried to do all kinds of soccer swings, Elvis shakes, and Russian boot dances with minimal effect, but enough to make me feel ok about continuing up, so we did.
At the top of pitch 5 or so (out of 7), Dale was pretty bushed. I was willing to take over the lead as my toes were feeling a little better, and I was about to continue heading up when we had a good discussion on how we were feeling. I was far from 100% and still worried about my extremities. Dale looked more drained than I'd ever seen him in the mountains before. His cough was also acting up uncontrollably. At that moment, we decided to use our remaining energy to rap off, also knowing we needed to descend all the way to base camp that evening. It was a tough call—we probably could have pulled it off, but it would have been irresponsible to do so and at a risk level with which we weren't comfortable.
Frustrated and really tired, we rapped off the face, descended and traversed back to camp, and collapsed into our tent for a quick nap. We summoned the energy to pack up camp, head up to the col, make a couple of double-rope raps down the top of the glacier, and then walk down to the moraine before dark. We grabbed our stashed approach shoes there and started picking our way down the moraine in the dark as a snow squall started, making it really hard to use the light beam to see cairns marking the way and causing our GPS readings to be off. Thankfully we found enough traces of humanity to pick our way down the moraine and eventually made it to base camp around 9 or 10pm. Amador had seen our headlamps coming down the moraine and had hiked up the last 20 minutes or so to grab some of our gear and help us out—what a good guy.
We crashed hard and then needed to be moving at 7am the next morning to meet with Amador's donkey train. A white horse (clearly no symbolism involved) took our packs and we slowly walked out to Cashapampa. My toes and fingers had gotten cold enough to go numb and stay that way, but didn't seem to be frostbitten. We celebrated our successful descent and adventure with Amador over a beer before reversing our series of collectivos back to Huaraz. When we arrived there, I felt gaunt and my pants wouldn't stay on (when I arrived home a week later, I'd lost 13 pounds). Dale kept up his hacking cough. I'm sure we looked like quite the pair.
Despite getting sick and having a tough go of it, we still had a grand adventure. It was really fun to be in a new corner of the world, experiencing a different style of climbing at a higher altitude than we'd tried before. It was also a great experience to meet and talk to a number of the locals—the people were categorically friendly, helpful, and fun to be around.