Skiing in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca: Urus, Ishinca and Tocllaraju | Photo Tour

Lee Lyon | BackcountryBackcountry

This May and June I had the opportunity to join a trip to try and ski some high peaks in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. This report is from the first part of our trip: the journey from Switzerland to Huaraz Peru, and our adventure into the Quebrada Ishinca.

Ishinca 1
Piramide de Garcilazo. These are the sorts of peaks that can be found in the Cordillera Blanca.


I entered this trip with some hesitation, for a couple of reasons. First, while I certainly don’t mind hiking for my turns (and have even been known to don crampons from time to time), I do not consider myself a climber by any stretch of the definition. Not only does the Cordillera Blanca have the reputation for being a center for alpinism, but it also contains a number of peaks in the 20,000 foot range, which is considerably higher than I had ever been before.


Ishinca 2
Long valleys lead to big, glaciated peaks. The Quebrada Ishinca with Tocllaraju at its head.


With these reservations in mind, my personal goals in joining this trip were to learn as much as possible about climbing in truly high mountains, to enjoy a new experience in this incredibly varied world of skiing, and to come home safely. Any other achievements as far as summits or ski runs would just be an added bonus.


Ishinca 3
The team: Petter Meling, Juan Rivas, Lee Lyon, assorted donkeys.


Our group consisted of myself (Lee Lyon), Petter Meling, and Juan Rivas. Juan and Petter both live in Verbier, and I was able to spend the springtime leading up to Peru training and preparing with them in the Alps. Personally, I left Verbier in the best shape of my life, with rising hopes about what we could achieve in the Cordillera Blanca.


Ishinca 4
Training for Peru. On our way to the Petit Combin. Val de Bagnes, CH.


After an incredibly smooth and uneventful trip from Switzerland to Peru, and a few days of logistics and acclimatization in Huaraz, we were ready to embark on our first adventure into the mountains.


Ishinca 5
Acclimatization hike near Laguna Churup.


In Huaraz, we were staying at the Casa de Zarela. Zarela came recommended to us by other friends, and I would like to pass that recommendation along here. She took care of all of our logistics and preparation; from taxis, to donkeys, to information on camps, to recommendations for places to eat. I have done a fair bit of traveling with skis in the past few years, and have become quite used to the ups, downs, and stresses of it all. While this trip could have been a logistical nightmare, it might have been the smoothest trip I have ever done, almost entirely thanks to Zarela. So… thanks!


Ishinca 6
Changing transport modes at the base of the Quebrada Ishinca: taxi to donkey.


Ishinca 6b
Beginning the long approach hike to Ishinca base camp. Con burros.


Ishinca 6c
Home sweet home for the next 9 days. Ishinca base camp.


Our destination was the Quebrada Ishinca, with three peaks in mind: Urus Este, Ishinca, and Tocllaraju. We planned to spend 9 days in the valley, acclimatizing and learning about what it would take to ski from summits in this mountain range.


Ishinca 7a
First peak of the trip: Urus Este


Ishinca 7
Second acclimatization peak for the trip: Ishinca. The line comes off the summit to the looker’s left, and comes straight down between cliffs to the right and seracs to the left. If you look closely, you can see pieces of my camera scattered beneath the cliffs.


At 17,783 and 18,143 feet, Urus and Ishinca are relatively low for the Cordillera Blanca, and we hoped they would be good acclimatizing peaks. I had my video camera along for these two peaks, and along with some POV footage from Juan, was able to put together a little edit that describes our approach into the Quebrada Ishinca and experiences on Urus and Ishinca nicely:


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Unfortunately, I hurled my camera off a cliff just below the summit of Ishinca, so this video concludes my photographic contribution to the trip.


Ishinca 8
Moraine turns to glacier on Urus Este.


Ishinca 8b
Skiing, finally! Finding some powder as a climber looks on.


We were able to summit and ski both Urus and Ishinca. On one hand, this provided some great skiing, and was confidence – inspiring for our chances on higher peaks going forward. On the other hand, we hiked through snow and rain on both climbs, which, in retrospect, foreshadowed our struggles with weather in the weeks to come.


Ishinca 9
Juan working through crevasses in the early morning sun on Ishinca.


Ishinca 9a
Juan making turns low on Ishinca.


Ishinca 9b
Ishinca, done.


Our last goal for the Ishinca Valley was Tocllaraju, our first 6,000m attempt for the trip (coming in at 19,790ft). Tocllaraju has a beautiful, extremely steep ramp of a west face, that is visible right down the front in this photo. It is often ice, but if it is in condition, it is the ideal ski line from the summit. If it wasn’t looking good, we would descend by the looker’s left ridge.


Ishinca 10
Tocllaraju. One of the better views of it we got the whole time we were at base camp. You can see the impressive west face coming down out of the clouds in the center of the photo.


Tocllaraju sits at the head of the valley we were camping in, so at this point we had been staring at it for a week. In that week, the summit had only emerged from the clouds for about an hour, total. Realistically, we all knew that our odds were not good for getting on top of this one. But, with our success on the trip so far, we felt that luck was on our side, and that somehow the sun would pop out just for us. Also, a local guide had managed to drag clients through the glacier and onto the summit ridge, and we hoped we might be able to follow his tracks.


Ishinca 11
Slogging it up to Tocllaraju high camp with heavy packs.


We arrived at our glacier camp with some of the best weather we had seen up high so far, and high hopes. But, when the alarms sounded at 2am, it was snowing again. We were able to find a faint track low on the glacier, but wind and snow were quickly burying it.


Ishinca 12
Tocllaraju high camp.


Midway through the glacier, the track finally became buried, and we were on our own. We were able to push a little farther, but finally found ourselves back tracking a couple of times, and unable to find the correct route to the summit ridge. When our own track began to disappear behind us, it was time to admit defeat.


Ishinca 13
Wandering around on glaciers in the clouds.


Many climbers seem willing to take the risk of stumbling around blind on these peaks in the Cordillera Blanca, but the risk is unacceptable for me. I don’t have much glacier experience, but the ones in Peru seem exceptionally open and active. A recurring theme on our summit attempts became an unwillingness to travel exposed glaciated terrain in whiteouts.


Ishinca 14
One last look back on our way back down to Huaraz.

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15 thoughts on “Skiing in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca: Urus, Ishinca and Tocllaraju | Photo Tour

  1. Climbed both Urus Este and Ishinca, I had to bail the same as you guys did on Tocllaraju. Fantastic place, maybe next time I’ll bring skis…

  2. The Ishinca valley provides several options to climb progressively higher peaks. This trek will feature summits on Urus, Ishinca and Tocllaraju peaks. Additional hikes are easily accessible for those wanting to do even more. With our base camp located in the middle of these peaks, we will have stunning 360 degree views and plenty of trails and mountains to explore.

    Peruvian Mountains invite you visit the cordillera blanca interesting are for trekking climbing in peru

  3. Great photos! Brings back memories of our trip to all 3 peaks in 1965. The weather was great, snow perfect, and the views unreal. Best time of my life. Thanks for sharing.

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