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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.